Gavriil Nikolayevich Popov and Dmitri Dmitryevich Shostakovich were close contemporaries, and there are striking parallels in their careers. Both were highly accomplished pianists who decided to concentrate on composition in their mid-twenties; both were singled out for praise by Prokofiev when he visited the Soviet Union in 1927; both were active in Leningrad in the 1920s and 30s, then in Moscow from 1943; both composed a good deal of theatre and film music and got into hot water because of it; both were branded formalists in the crackdowns of 1936 and 1948; both visited England around the same time (Popov in 1959, Shostakovich in 1960); both were married three times (Popov’s second wife died in 1953, a year before Shostakovich’s first, and the composers exchanged condolences); and in both cases their widows preserved their archives. And the closest contact between the two composers came in the mid-1930s, when the future direction of the Soviet Symphony was still uncertain.
One major difference is that Popov kept a diary, which preserves a wealth of information, not least concerning the background of the work on which he expended the most effort and which was to earn him the greatest notoriety – the first of his six numbered symphonies. In November 1926 he mentions his search for a “theatrical-musical (symphonic) form,” which is the first clue to the general character of the project on which he was soon to embark. In August 1929, having completed a sketch of the first movement, he noted that, “My symphony is about three stages of growth, of psychic development. It’s not worth trying to define them in words.” Six months later, just into the Finale, he managed to find some more precise words: “I dedicate this symphony to my dear father, a worker and fighter on the front of proletarian culture (educating young workers). It’s about 1) struggle and failure, 2) humanity, 3) the energy, will and joy of the victor’s work.” In September 1932, with the Finale still in somewhat provisional guise, Popov’s Symphony won second prize in a competition organized by the Bolshoy Theatre and Komsomolskaya Pravda for a symphony to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. The orchestration took a further two years, and not until March 22, 1935 did the 45-minute, three-movement work receive its Leningrad premiere, only to be banned the very next day on the grounds that it reflected “the ideology of classes hostile to us.” Although the ban was lifted a month later, Popov was soon drawn into the aftermath of Pravda’s denunciations of Shostakovich. His Symphony was pronounced “formalist” and never performed again in his lifetime (it was finally disinterred in the glasnost years). This left nearly as big a hole in the history of the Soviet symphony as the more famous suppression of Shostakovich’s Fourth, whose overall design Popov’s work clearly anticipates.
The first movement announces itself with a Rite of Spring-like “sneeze,” followed by a spidery Schoenbergian fugal first theme. The foil for this is a slow section of Scriabinesque defiant despondency and then a tarantella of a manic momentum Prokofiev would surely not have disowned (he was another admirer of the Symphony and agitated, unsuccessfully, for its performance in the West). All three ideas, and their various prefaces and pendants, are melted down and reformed in a colossal central development section, before a truncated recapitulation – marked by the return of the double bass pulsations and the Schoenbergian fugue – leads into a Coda that finally collapses in exhaustion.
The lyrical slow movement is scarcely less convoluted, though it starts in deceptively orderly fashion as the expressive oboe theme over ticking harp accompaniment is re-scored for piccolo over violins. This music is soon sucked into a maelstrom of accelerating accumulation. A new songful violin and horn theme, and a third idea initiated by the horn in dialogue with woodwind, take on numerous guises in a central section of agonized accumulations and disconsolate withdrawals. The main theme’s long-delayed return, with the original oboe line now on solo violin, is much curtailed, and the movement comes to rest in a kind of provisional tranquility.
The Finale plunges us back into the convulsive perpetual motion of the first movement. All sorts of ideas fly off the anvil, including one (led off by piccolo and xylophone) that Shostakovich would remember in the Finale of his Fifth Symphony and the second movement of his Seventh. Instead of burning itself out, this Scherzo tumbles headlong into a Coda of massive proportions and deafening clamor, for which one of the few precedents is the sunrise music at the end of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. Shostakovich kept tabs on Popov’s composition, and he would draw on its hyperbolic C major conclusion – albeit in heavily ironized form – for the corresponding pages of his equally ill-starred masterpiece, the Fourth Symphony.