The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 4

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Peter Laki

Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43 (1934-36)

by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)

 Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975.  He began work on his Fourth Symphony in late 1934 and completed it in May 1936.  The composer withdrew the symphony before the scheduled first performance, and the work was not heard in public until December 30, 1961, when it was played by the Moscow Philharmonic under Kirill Kondrashin.  The United States premiere was given by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on February 15, 1963.

The symphony runs about an hour in performance.  Shostakovich's score calls for 2 piccolos, 4 flutes, 4 oboes (fourth doubling English horn), piccolo clarinet in E flat, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani (2 sets of 3 drums), percussion (xylophone, glockenspiel, triangle, castanets, gong, cymbals, snare drum, wood drum, bass drum), celesta, 2 harps, and strings.

The Dangers of Symphony-Writing

There is a Russian word, simfonizm, that-vaguely familiar as it sounds-cannot be easily translated into English:  ?symphonism" isn't recognized by most dictionaries.  Yet in February 1935, the Union of Soviet Composers held a three-day conference devoted to just that concept which, in essence, encompassed all the issues relevant to symphony-writing:  style, technique, musical meaning, social context, political implications, and more.  Clearly, in the Soviet Union, you couldn't just have a symphony without ?symphonism."  In an earlier age, Mahler thought that the symphony should embrace the entire world, but Mahler wrote his symphonies without being overly constrained by how the world might react to the embrace.  That world was often hostile to Mahler, but he could shrug it off, saying, ?I can wait."  Soviet composers did not have the same luxury.  The world they had to embrace was the real world of their immediate political environment, whose anticipated responses they couldn't fail to take into account already during the work of composition.

The 29-year-old Shostakovich had just started his Fourth Symphony when he addressed the discussion on symphonism.  He was already an international celebrity, having been catapulted to fame by his First Symphony a full decade earlier.  In the late 1920s, he had composed to more symphonies; both were relatively short, propagandistic in tone, highly original in language and both included final choruses that drove the political message home.  From 1932 at the latest, he was planning to write a fourth symphony.  He first considered basing the new work on political themes as he had done in his Second and Third, but finally decided to keep it non-programmatic.

The Fourth Symphony was preceded by the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, composed between 1930 and 1932, and premiered in 1934.  The opera was a milestone in Shostakovich's development as a composer.  Previously-and this may be hard for us to imagine-his reputation had been that of a ?Soviet Rossini," by which was meant his fondness for humor and parody.  (In Shostakovich's case, it was more like sarcasm.)  It was in Lady Macbeth that sarcasm for the first time became a vehicle for tragedy; it was there that Shostakovich first expressed feelings like love, loneliness, and despair in his music.  The Fourth Symphony was supposed to achieve a similar development in the symphonic realm, and transform the composer from the ?Soviet Rossini" to a ?Soviet Beethoven," in the words of commentator Calum MacDonald.

How Simple Should a Composer Be?

At that conference on symphonism, Shostakovich mentioned his work-in-progress in his speech.  He called it his ?composer's credo" that would establish his personal style, which he wanted to be ?simple and expressive."  But he had some thoughts on that personal style that-as soon became clear-didn't sit well with some of the apparatchiks in the room:

Striving for simplicity is sometimes understood somewhat superficially:  as often as not simplicity becomes feeble imitation.  But to express oneself in a simple way does not mean using the language that was in use fifty or a hundred years ago.  That, however, is exactly the mistake made by composers who are afraid of being classed among formalists [read: ?followers of the Western avant-garde'-P.L.]....Only if he succeeds in steering clear of this Scylla and Charybdis can a Soviet composer become a true poet of our great epoch.

 How did Shostakovich set about realizing this ambitous goal?  He found inspiration in a composer outside the Russian tradition, namely Gustav Mahler.  Mahler's symphonies were not often performed in Russia in those days, but Shostakovich's closest friend, the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, was an enthusiastic Mahler champion and even wrote a book on Mahler.  It was through him that Shostakovich got to know Mahler's symphonies.  The influence can be felt in the scope, indeed the very length of Shostakovich's work, and in the caricatured use of march and dance motifs.  There is even an echo of the cuckoo-call from Mahler's First Symphony in Shostakovich's Fourth.

Yet Shostakovich never fell into ?feeble imitation."  His musical landscape is as far removed from Mahler's as can be; there are no nostalgic evocations of the past, and no comfort taken in moments of high spirituality.  The world being embraced here-the only world Shostakovich knew-is an unremittingly bleak place, and no escape from the grim realities is possible.  The harmonic language is often harsh and dissonant, but even the lyrical moments, tinged by a profound sadness, do little to dispel the general gloom.  The music has to grope its way through the darkness, so to speak; it has a formal design in which a clear sense of direction is only intermittently present.

A Voyage with Detours

Overall, the first movement (which lasts almost half an hour) is in sonata form, the second movement (about 10 minutes) in a kind of binary structure (A-B-A-B).  But even here, these classical terms can be used only with qualifications.  The finale (more than 20 minutes) defies  even a rough formal categorization, and can be understood only as a ?fantasy" consisting of a slow introduction, an allegro, a playful dance sequence, a loud coda, and a soft coda.  Any symphony of an hour's length is a monumental voyage, but the itinerary this time includes many unpredictable detours, and a general uncertainty about what the next moment might bring.  There are episodes in turn grotesque, tragic, and playful; often the same melodic material is used to express opposite emotions, through changing orchestration and dynamics.  Like many later works by Shostakovich, the Fourth contains many extended instrumental solos and segments scored for smaller groups of players.  That diversity in orchestration is matched by a multiplicity of compositional techniques, from relatively simple melody-and-accompaniment textures to the fierce Presto fugue in the middle of the first movement.

The winding road concludes, at the end of the hour, with an astonishing pair of codas.  The first of these, glorious and triumphant, is precisely the kind of ending a grand symphony would seem to require.  Yet in this case the grandiose ending is contradicted, not to say destroyed, by a subdued and eerie passage where, over a relentlessly repeated low C note in the harps and contrabasses, a languid farewell melody (a transformation of an earlier theme) unfolds.  The final sounds of the celesta and timpani uncannily anticipate the ending of Shostakovich's fifteenth and last symphony (1971), which has been unanimously understood as an image of death.

Dormant for 25 years

Shostakovich clearly did not believe that new sounds, or a complex and tragic message, were necessarily incompatible with Soviet symphonism.  He had, after all, come of age during the years immediately following the revolution when a more open attitude towards the arts prevailed.  But by the mid-1930s, times had changed, and the doctrine of simple, folk-based art for the masses had been formulated, and increasingly enforced, by the Communist Party.  Shostakovich wasn't quite finished with the Fourth Symphony in January 1936, when Pravda, the official Communist daily, published its infamous editorial ?Muddle Instead of Music," a brutal attack on the opera Lady Macbeth.  In those days of the Great Terror, when Stalin had millions of Soviet citizens imprisoned, exiled or executed, such an attack was life-threatening, for Shostakovich could easily have been deported to the Gulag (a system of forced-labor camps).  In the event he was spared, but his life was never the same again.

Under these circumstances, Shostakovich had to think twice whether to release a symphony that would surely add insult to injury in the eyes of the Party officials.  In May 1936-the very day after the birth of his first child-he played through the Fourth Symphony on the piano for the great conductor Otto Klemperer, who immediately offered to perform it in South America.  But this was not to be.  In the fall, the Leningrad Philharmonic began preparing the work under Fritz Stiedry.  Shostakovich withdrew the symphony after the tenth rehearsal, claiming in the newspaper that it no longer corresponded to his ?current creative convictions."  Other purported reasons, from Stiedry's incompetence to Shostakovich's frustration over some technical problems he apparently couldn't solve, were given by different people at various times, but the truth, no doubt, was what the composer's close friend Isaak Glikman later revealed.  According to Glikman, Shostakovich had been summoned to the office of Comrade Renzin, the director of the Philharmonic.  ?Not wanting to resort to administrative measures, [Renzin] had prevailed upon the composer to refuse consent for the symphony's performance himself."  Shostakovich then started work on a new symphony, the Fifth, which, officially designated as a ?Soviet artist's response to just criticism," was to bring a new simplicity and a new optimism to his music, restore him to general favor and usher in a new creative period in his life.

During the years the Fourth could not be performed, Shostakovich, in the self-critical vein that was de rigueur for composers who had been attacked, officially disparaged it-the work in which he had set down his ?credo"-now saying that it suffered from ?grandiosomania."  In the meantime, the score of the work was lost during World War II.  Shostakovich reconstructed it in 1946 in a two-piano version, which was given a private reading by the composer and his friend, composer Moisei Vainberg.  The friends who heard it were enthusiastic, but it was another fifteen years before the symphony was played in public by an orchestra.  The parts from the 1936 rehearsals were fortunately recovered, and thus a new score could be created.  Shostakovich did not change a single note before the premiere, which finally took place on December 30, 1961, eight years after Stalin's death.  The overwhelming success of the work, both in Russia and abroad, was a vindication for Shostakovich, who was finally able to admit openly how he felt about the Fourth Symphony.  He told a friend quite simply that it was the very best thing he had ever written.