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.

The Circle of Shostakovich

By Leon Botstein

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

One of the most intriguing and confusing eras in the history of music occurred between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939. In these two decades, the life of the artist, especially of the musician in Russia, was transformed. The vibrant tradition of composition and performance that had flourished during the last decades of the Czarist regime in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and indeed throughout the Russian empire, was forced to accommodate new political conditions. These conditions were unprecedented not only in ideological terms with the advent of Communism, but in terms of the personal judgments, methods and ambitions of the political leadership concerning the development of social consciousness through art.

Unlike many of its Western national counterparts, the new Soviet utopia did not perceive art and culture as peripheral or subsidiary. Quite to the contrary, the arts served multiple social functions. First, they were potently symbolic of collective human aspiration, primary vehicles for the expression of secular hope and idealism. Second, their cultivation was a tangible reflection of the progress of Socialism. Since the establishment of the first truly socialist government was supposedly a historically progressive step, the government initially sought to encourage art expressing the triumph of Socialism, art embodying a progressive rather than nostalgic spirit. Third, art was a medium for balancing the national and the international. It could proudly exhibit Russian artistic distinction and yet reach out to people of other nations, particularly the Proletariat. Art was the voice of Russia, communicating an ideal vision of a classless solidarity to the rest of the world. It was art for the common populace.

Ironically, however, this Soviet policy for the arts was enacted precisely at a moment in history when the arts across the Western World were relishing their radicalism and their break with tradition and convention, a movement we now identify as Modernism. The task of reconciling these two seemingly disparate aesthetic and political agendas presented a daunting challenge to Soviet artists. The revolutionary idea they were trying to represent in their work was supposed to promote the end of radical inequalities in political power and wealth, but this parallel revolution in the arts seemed to move in precisely the opposite direction, favoring an elite by privileging an aesthetic that the broader population found incomprehensible. By the end of the 1930s, therefore, the political requirements of the state explicitly stipulated a form of socialist Realism for the arts. In music, that meant a predisposition toward transparency and conservative harmonic and rhythmic strategies. Soon, the demand for an “official” art compatible with the state’s ideals grew into an attack on musical Modernism and what would be decried as “Formalism,” the making of art for art’s sake, or for the narcissistic, individualistic bourgeois conceits of the artist rather than for the education of the masses.

Within this framework, the chronology of the interaction between the Soviet state and its artists makes for terrifying study. Of those initial moments in the 1920s, when despite severe economic hardships there was a remarkable flourishing of experimentation, and the notion reigned of a progressive art for a progressive politics, there is no better symbolic example than the competition for the design of Lenin’s Tomb, that famous icon in Red Square. This utterly austere building stands as a monument to an ascetic, linear Modernism, placed in stark opposition to the walls of the Kremlin and the elaborate traditional architecture of its interior, the late nineteenth century arcade on the other side (later Gum), and St. Basil’s Cathedral. It is a striking comment on the early aspirations to reconcile Modernism and Communism. But Lenin’s death in 1924 marked the beginning of the end of this fragile symbiosis. The experimentalism represented by the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), the constructivist and modernist painters Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) and Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), the director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940), with whom both Popov and Shostakovich worked, had its parallel in music with composers like Alexander Mosolov (1900-1973), and Nicolai Roslavets (1881-1944). This modernist enthusiasm was in part a reaction against the academicism of an older generation of composers who continued to write in a very traditional idiom after the revolution, such as Nicolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950), Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956), and Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). This Russian experimentalism of the 1920s was also seen as an alternative to another kind of experimentalist Modernism associated with that outspoken critic of Communism, Igor Stravinsky, and the development of atonality and the twelve-tone system, not to speak of Neoclassicism in Western Europe.

But this romance with the new was short-lived. As the government subsidized theaters, schools, publishing houses, orchestras, and opera houses, and supported formal organizations of composers and artists, it became acutely aware of and preoccupied with the relationship between the making of art and potential political criticism of dissent. That fear quickly eclipsed any desires for a coherency between Modernism and new political ideals. By the time Stalin solidified his power, what would become a Soviet pattern of internal criticism and the imposition of politically proper aesthetics was already being formulated. This was followed by a purging of dissonant artists by Stalin, which took the lives of many prominent writers, musicians, and artists. Between 1917 and 1939 there was a steady emigration from the Soviet Union that included Glazunov as well as younger talents including Vladimir Horowitz and Nathan Milstein. Western Europe and America became the beneficiaries of an ever-growing group of émigrés who joined an earlier generation of exiles. Russian artist expatriates believed that the necessary freedom for artistic integrity could not exist in post-revolutionary Russia.

This concert focuses on three composers who, during the 1930s, came to grips with the rapid transformation of the Soviet artist’s condition from optimism to oppression. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Gavriil Popov (1904-1972) came of age as young artists immediately after the Revolution. They represented the first new generation of socialist Russian artists. They were profoundly enthusiastic during the 1920s about what seemed to be a utopian system of patronage and encouragement. Some of Shostakovich’s greatest music was written during this period of idealism and possibility, including his opera The Nose. But as the wind turned colder, survival and conscience became locked in an irreconcilable conflict. Shostakovich, the man and his music, would be marked all his life by the contradiction between “official” artist and private person. Debates still rage concerning the relation between his music and his ambiguous political position. In the 1930s he was severely chastised and then adjusted, but came in for considerable criticism again after World War II. When one looks back on Shostakovich’s career, he was triumphant as an official artist, the winner of numerous Stalin prizes and a holder of key positions. Indisputably the greatest of the Soviet era composers, he was not, however, the most enthusiastically official. He carried his political obligations with considerable discomfort (unlike many of his celebrated contemporaries, including Khrennikov, Khachaturian, and Kabalevsky). If he buckled under the pressure exerted by Stalin, who seemed to have had a very clear idea of appropriate music for the socialist state, it does not make the matter of figuring out what Shostakovich really believed any easier. At the end of his career he joined a long list of prominent artists and musicians condemning Andrei Sakharov.

Like Shostakovich’s controversial opera Lady MacBeth of Mtensk (which was suppressed), Gavriil Popov’s Symphony No. 1 was initially condemned and withdrawn, only to be briefly reinstated after its first performance and then once again consigned to obscurity. It was not revived until Perestroika in the late 1980s. But unlike Shostakovich, Popov never discovered a way to carry on with the promise that this remarkable symphony shows. The bold and innovative character of the First Symphony seems to find no further expression in Popov’s later work. He had a career and won prizes, but his music never regained its claim to real distinction. Perhaps the intervention of state and the atmosphere of terror and constraint permanently damaged this remarkable talent. This Symphony, considered Popov’s masterpiece, dates from the waning years of aesthetic freedom and experimentation in Soviet Russia.

If Popov can be considered a victim of the system whose one great work was an inspiration to Shostakovich, and if Shostakovich can be viewed as a genius who found a means to reconcile success in the Soviet system with the writing of great music throughout his career, then the third composer on tonight’s program, the equally famous Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953 [ironically he died on the same day as Stalin]) is still the most enigmatic of the three. Prokofiev voluntarily returned to Soviet Russia from the West during the 1930s at Stalin’s invitation, when the dictator’s policies and practices were well understood. Prokofiev had acquired a great career and reputation in the West, yet he chose to return, and his first wife would end up spending many years in prison as a result. Prokofiev apparently had no difficulty in composing official music in praise of Stalin. The last years of his career from 1930 to his death saw him write some of his greatest works. Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev seemed to thrive under Stalin. That is not to say that everything was especially easy for Prokofiev. To his credit, he was one of Popov’s staunchest defenders, pushing to have the First Symphony performed in the West and defending the work against its Soviet critics. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4, commissioned by a wealthy Westerner, Paul Wittgenstein, actually premiered in the West under the baton of Martin Rich three years after Prokofiev’s death. Unlike Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, but like Popov’s First, it never maintained a public presence the Soviet era.

Though we can never know everything that happened during those dark years of Stalin’s artistic agenda, we can certainly draw some intriguing conclusions. As Popov’s symphony reveals, there is an enormous wealth of composition by composers whose names are still unfamiliar to the West. What wonderful works are still waiting to be re-examined? We tend to think that the political context was so reprehensible that it stifled creativity, but perhaps there was more to it than that. An abundance of fine music is now being discovered, written by individuals whose opportunity to be heard outside of Russia was restricted both by Soviet authorities and Western prejudices against the Soviet Union. Because of the Cold War, there are over sixty years of music-making to which we have not been exposed and through which we must sift in order to have a truly comprehensive account of what was clearly, despite all its constraints, a great age of music-making in Russia. We certainly recall Oistrakh and Richter, among other great Soviet performers, without remembering that there was an equally vibrant subculture in composition that extends beyond the famous names.

When we, in the post-Cold War and postmodernist environment, encounter the music of Shostakovich or Prokofiev from the 1930s and 1940s, there are many ways in which we can choose to hear it. For some it is merely a form of neoclassical, twentieth-century music, and for others, simplistic nationalist expression. Some may argue that there is encoded meaning that lies underneath the officially sanctioned surface. Are we entitled to hear sarcasm, irony, parody, and despair within these lively forms? Was music in the hands of these masters a subversive art placed in an uneasy, surreptitious relationship with the state?

There is no doubt that as we continue to historicize the twentieth century, Shostakovich and Prokofiev will retain their prominence as we seek to understand and evaluate their music. The presence of the Popov reminds us how much there is to learn and to know now that the veil of secrecy has been lifted from recent Russian history. It has often been observed that instrumental music is one art that not only can survive intact but flourish under conditions of repression and censorship. The works on tonight’s program exemplify this fact, and the inclusion of Popov’s unfamiliar work starkly reminds us of the aesthetic inferences and concerns that Shostakovich and Prokofiev were forced to engage. All three works remind us that for the public in the Soviet Union, as well as for composers and performers, music throughout the Soviet era remained a vital, personal realm marked by intense engagement, commitment, and emotional power. In no other era in modern history did music so forcefully redeem its promise of a reminder of the possibilities of the human even under the most inhumane conditions.

Symphony No. 1, Op. 7 (1934)

By David Fanning

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

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.

Piano Concerto No. 4 (left hand alone) and Orchestra, Op. 53 (1931)

By Fred Kirshnit

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

When Sergei Prokofiev first heard Dmitri Mitropoulos perform and simultaneously conduct his Piano Concerto No. 3 so magnificently in Paris, the composer, who had himself toured with the piece, reportedly remarked rather peevishly that “I guess I will have to write another for myself.” He had recently squandered his creative talents on an ill-fated Concerto No. 4 for the one-armed Paul Wittgenstein. The normally obstreperous pianist, who initially bridled at performing the distinctive opening cadenza that gives the Ravel work written for his unique circumstances such dramatic power, had also complained that the two compositions fashioned for him by Richard Strauss were disproportionate and unnecessarily modern. Towards Prokofiev, Wittgenstein exhibited the most polite deference while still steadfastly refusing to even attempt to perform his new concerto. In fact, the opus languished unheard until another German concert artist, Siegfried Rapp, lost his own right arm in an even more brutal version of global conflict and contacted Madame Prokofiev three years after the death of her husband, receiving permission to give the world premiere of the piece in Berlin in 1956.

The structural peccadillo of this inventive miniature is an insouciant circular design. The first movement, although marked Vivace, is indeed a Rondo, more suitable in formal musical architecture as an ending section. We enter the fashionable world of the Stravinskiian Neoclassical almost immediately and it is easy to recall two of Prokofiev’s earlier works, the “Classical” Symphony No. 1 and the brisk, one-movement First Concerto. The opening coolness establishes a certain detachment, reminiscent of Haydn, a holding out of the emotional content at one arm’s length. Thoughtful and measured, the Andante is the finest Prokofiev slow movement to date, foreshadowing in its patient construction of intensity the great third movement of the Fifth Symphony. The composer, who lost the only copy of his Second Concerto when his tenants burned it for warmth while he was away on concert tour, almost immediately rescued the main theme of this section once it became apparent that Wittgenstein would never perform the work as a whole, giving it new life and form as one of the loveliest melodies in his ballet Romeo and Juliet. In the Moderato section, Prokofiev rolls up his sleeve and fashions an entire clinic on the subject of touch, rising to the challenge to make the writing for only one hand as varied as that for both. Wittgenstein claimed a lack of understanding of the piece as his basis for rejection, but it seems more likely that he was afraid of this movement and its wide range of colorful tactile demands. But it is the incredible fourth movement that identifies this composition as uniquely Prokofiev. Only seconds over a minute in length, this razor-sharp distillation of the opening material is an exclamation point that ends like an ellipsis. Satisfying the urge to conclude with a Rondo after all, only the composer of a set of solo piano pieces called Sarcasms could have written such a signature close.