Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54 (1939)

By Maya Pritsker

Written for the concert The Circle of Shostakovich, performed on April 11, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“In the odd hybrid of two diametrically opposed semantic complexes is thus concealed the brutal truth of Soviet reality in the 1930s, when the auto-da-fe of an entire nation was carried out to the accompaniment of hymns and marches.”

–Prof I. Barsova on the Finale of the Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony

Among Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies, the Sixth has been perhaps the most misunderstood. The composer himself contributed to the confusion by announcing in the fall of 1938 that he had started a monumental new symphony, “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” with verses from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s famous poem. But when the symphony premiered in Leningrad on November 21, 1939, and then in Moscow on December 3 of that same year, not only was there no trace of the poem (or any Lenin reference whatsoever), but the form of the symphony itself seemed odd: two fast, seemingly light-hearted movements (the Allegro and Presto) followed by a long, slow, pensive Largo. Such a disjointed cycle without a traditional sonata form, with such enormous content disparity between the Largo and the rest of the symphony, made some of Shostakovich’s colleagues consider the Sixth somewhat of a failure. Neither the composer’s remark that “the symphony is an effort to convey the mood of spring, joy and life,” nor attempts by some sympathetic Soviet critics to camouflage its real meaning helped the case. The symphony virtually disappeared in the shadows of the Fifth and the Seventh.

Interestingly enough, according to Shostakovich’s friend I. Glikman, the public response to the premiere in the composer’s hometown of Leningrad was enthusiastic, and the final movement was encored. Was it just a sign of support for Shostakovich, who recently went through the ordeal of official criticism and still lived, like so many his contemporaries, under constant fear of arrest or exile? Or did the audience recognize in the music the same inner truth that screamed from the pages of the third movement of the Fifth symphony and lurked behind its “optimistic” finale? After all, by the end of the 1930s the Soviet people had already developed an ability to lead double lives, recognize hidden meanings and wear verbal/social masks in order to appease the “monster” – Stalin’s regime. Though the year 1938 marked an official end to the purges, the trials and arrests continued. Among the new victims were poet Osip Mandelshtam, writer Isaak Babel, and – most painfully for Shostakovich – the great theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold (arrested in June 1939) who befriended the young composer during their earlier collaboration.

Shostakovich, who appeared to have avoided the worst following the success of his Fifth Symphony (1937), occupied himself for a while with minor and not very visible work, such as film music, his Suite No. 2 for Dance Band, and an arrangement of a Strauss operetta. He devoted much of his time to his new responsibilities as a conservatory professor. His failed attempt to write the “Lenin” symphony is telling evidence of his inability to succumb to the demands of Soviet propaganda – especially in the symphonic genre, which in truly Mahlerian fashion, was to Shostakovich a “picture of the world.” In order to create a picture of a horrible world in which, according to Testimony, he was “so lonely and afraid,” Shostakovich further explored the territory of double meaning that he had begun to explore in his two previous symphonies.

Was the Sixth a failure? Not at all – it was a masterpiece, an existential drama, which develops from the profoundly personal reflections of the Largo, to the dreams and nightmares of the Allegro, and finally into the terrifyingly ambivalent picture of daylight, where joyous folk fill the streets and the persecution goes on behind thick walls in the Presto. With astonishing simplicity and precision, Shostakovich creates in the Largo a portrait of a soul lost in loneliness, suffering and fear. The texture is sparse and laconic, even by Shostakovich’s standards: just a few melodic lines knitted together, with rare outbursts of tragically colored chords. This is the sound of isolation, an image of a cold night, in which one is left face to face with his own thoughts.

The Symphony opens with a dark, long melody played in unison, a monologue of a sad, noble and sincere human voice, rising slowly to a cry and falling down into dead stillness. The longer second wave, with even more deliberate development of the same theme, introduces a new element, a brief passionate phrase in a baroque style, and comes to a catastrophic climax in a trumpet solo. And then comes the most telling image: the funeral march (Poco piu mosso e poco rubato) with a melody of lament over the distant strikes of the timpani. This central part of the Largo includes a strange flute solo in Oriental style. Is that a hint of Stalin’s shadow over the country? The recapitulation of the first theme sounds more helpless than ever. The final bars bring back the funeral march, telling quietly with just two beats: there is no hope.

The Allegro starts like one of Shostakovich’s Dances of Dolls, but this cheerful lightness is fleeting. A short violin melody brings in a sudden sadness; bass clarinet with three bassoons start another theme with frightening tone; and the first tutti sounds dark and grotesque, not playful. In this sonata form the development further darkens the colors and deepens the underlying nightmarish feeling, most obvious in the general climax. The recapitulation is brief, and the images never fully regain their cheerfulness. They just vanish, disappear like ghosts before the sunlight. There are a couple of reminders of the Largo (most notably the above mentioned string melody and the timbre of the timpani), accentuating the unity of the whole symphonic drama.

And then the night is over: a quasi-triumphant last march-dance forms the Finale of the Sixth, reminding us of the complete opposition of the inner and outer world. “Look what is around us,” the Presto seems to say. Soviet propaganda wanted people to see only “joy and spring.” Shostakovich saw ugly, vulgar and tragic reality, epitomized by sport marches, optimistic movies and light music, under the surface of which the tyranny of paranoia, evil and mediocrity lived. Through the timbre and thematic connections between movements, as well as brilliant scoring and harmonic thinking, he creates a constant pendulum between humor and sarcasm, elusiveness of tone, and endlessly changing and mutating moods, colors, and shadows.