SS No. 63 | Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4

by Glenn on October 17, 2017

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)

Symphony No. 4 in c minor, Op. 43

i. Allegretto poco moderato—Presto
ii. Moderato con moto
iii. Largo—Allegro

I listened to a recording by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Recorded: Walthamstow Assembly Hall | January 1989
Label: London | D-125172

Cover artwork for Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Dmitri Shostakovich began composing his Symphony No. 4 on 13 September 1935, when he was 29 years old. Eight months later the symphony was finished. In December of 1936, Fritz Stiedry and the (then) Leningrad Philharmonic were scheduled to perform the work for the first time, but during rehearsals, Shostakovich withdrew it. Over the years he would revise it. In 1946, a two-piano reduction of the work was published. It wasn’t until Shostakovich was 55 that this work was performed by an orchestra live, on 30 December 1961, with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic.

There are a number of theories for why Shostakovich pulled the symphony from being performed in 1936. All four theories are plausible, and it’s possible they are intertwined, that at least two or three if not all four of them taken together form the truth. The unanswerable question is to what extent the reality behind any one of these theories outweighed the others.

Theory No. 1 is that Shostakovich wasn’t satisfied with it. In his own words later in life, this symphony was “a very imperfect, long-winded work that suffers, I’d say, from ‘grandiosomania.’” Michael Steinberg notes this is interesting self-criticism in light of some of the enormous works he wrote, for example the two symphonies, Leningrad: The Year 1905 and The Year 1917. In light of the fact that he did tinker with the work over the years, he might have wanted to see it polished further.

Theory No. 2 suggests that Shostakovich was not happy with the rehearsal process, that Stiedry was not doing an acceptable job bringing the music to life.

Theory No. 3 says that Shostakovich wanted to change course musically. Steinberg describes “the striking features of this music … [as] dissonance, dissociation, and an exuberant orchestral style.” He emphasizes a “high dissonance factor” in the music, which was certainly my experience. In the CD liner notes, Robert Layton describes the symphony this way:

“A much bigger work than any of its predecessors, it is surely the most exploratory in idiom and evokes an altogether more tortured and desolate world.”

So perhaps Shostakovich didn’t like where his explorations were going. Rather than push this music onto the public, Shostakovich put it into a drawer and went other places with his music.

Theory No. 4 is that it wasn’t safe for Shostakovich to have this music played. 1936 was a tough year (of many tough years) for anyone who wasn’t in the favor of the Stalin government. Purges had begun, which is euphemistic for people being killed or in some other way being removed from society. Shostakovich had already received criticism from the government for some of his music (his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was described by Pravda as “a farrago of chaotic, nonsensical sounds.”) and he was aware of writers who had lost their lives. Were composers safe? Unlikely. It was eight years after Stalin’s death that the music finally came to life.

Shostakovich was a composer living within a tension of art and politics.

A weekend ago, we were at the Oregon coast. It’s interesting to see the shape of some of the trees exposed to the harsh elements where land and sea meet. The same kind of tree planted along the Oregon coast will look very different from one planted in an inland forest. The trees on the coast have a rugged beauty.

I see Shostakovich as the coastal tree, shaped powerfully by strong circumstantial elements. You wonder what Shostakovich would have looked like (sounded like) had he been planted elsewhere.

*  *  *

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 has some big sounds and moments of glory, especially for the horns. There are any number of episodes, but especially the opening of the finale, that sound connected to the sound world of Gustav Mahler. Both Steinberg and the liner notes for the recording make the Mahler connection. For me, the essential connections between the two composers are the juxtaposition of widely disparate elements, the use of a funeral march, wildly sarcastic sounds, and an extremely large orchestra (for example, the 20 woodwind players in this symphony).

But I’m not ready to trade my obsession for Mahler to one for Shostakovich. At least not yet. If Mahler occasionally looks at the abyss, Shostakovich seems to be walking through it.

If Shostakovich’s Fourth is an entrée (of a rather large portion), I am wrestling with the fact that this first hearing (as far as I can remember) doesn’t leave me wanting to experience more. You read stories of how at the premiere of this or that Haydn or Beethoven symphony, the audience was so delighted by what they heard that they made the orchestra replay a movement.

There is so much music that delights. Immediately. And repeatedly, even after the progression of the music no longer provides any surprise. But we’re a long way from Haydn, here, and one of the things you have to do with Shostakovich is grow accustomed to and comfortable with some of the terrifying sounds of the twentieth century transformed into music.

This music is full of unresolved tension, which makes it difficult to experience and doesn’t leave me thinking, “That was wonderful—I want to hear to hear it again.”

Many of the symphonies in this little study, including Shostakovich’s Fourth, feel like they are one-timers as I attend to the scope of this listening project. Is Shostakovich an acquired taste? By not being easy on the ears, is this music actually “better” or “better for you” because it’s quite serious.

Taste is a tough thing to consider. Salt, sugar, and fat speak to the brain and so many of us are just fine consuming fast food, eschewing fine dining (or at least less processed and healthier foods). It takes a while to convince your palate (and your brain) to enjoy what is actually good for you and for your taste buds to prefer it.

The other day I saw an advertising slogan for a health food. It said, “Real tastes better.” If it had said, “Real is better,” I would have understood, but I’m not sure real necessarily tastes better. As a culture we are committed to foods that are highly processed and full of artificial additives—about as unreal as you can get. Some of these foods taste really good—there’s no other reason to eat them. And if the food doesn’t actually taste good, the experience of eating it is addictive.

Is there an aural/artistic equivalent of sugar/salt/fat? When it comes to the arts, is there such a thing as real vs. processed. When we consider the kind of music performed by a symphony orchestra, is this music more “real” than other types?

The analogy breaks down.

With the exigencies of life and limited time for long-form listening, it seems an investment of time is necessary both to understand and to appreciate a work like this. Is it worth it? The purpose of this little study is to listen to some music I’ve never heard before. I don’t see myself, at least at this point, making a long-term commitment to many of these works, this one included.

A group of us are nearing the end of a study of Dr. Timothy Keller’s Prodigal God. He identifies two approaches the human heart takes in trying to experience and/or control God. One approach is the way of self-discovery. The other is the way of moral conformity.

Learning to appreciate Shostakovich could be a means of self-discovery, heightened experience, as I listen to things I’ve never paid attention to previously. It could also be a means to establish morality—“I am listening to this difficult music, which is superior to the stuff other people are listening to, which makes me a superior person.”

Neither path seems appropriate.

Stephen Johnson gives a lovely introduction (if the music itself isn’t that lovely) to this symphony here. He’s got a great title for this work: “the symphony that disappeared.”

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[…] pulled his Fourth Symphony during rehearsals. He had been criticized formally in 1936 by the Soviet Government for some of his […]

by SS 64 | Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in d minor « on 22 October 2017 at 9:54 pm. #