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Symphony No. 6

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Dmitri Shostakovich

About the Work

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quick Look Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Yakov Kreizberg conducts Pinchas Zukerman, violin Nov. 15 - 17, 2001
© Richard Freed
Shostakovich composed his Sixth Symphony in 1939; the premiere was given in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was called during the Soviet era) on November 5, 1939, under Evgeny Mravinsky. The National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work was conducted by Howard Mitchell on November 2, 1949; the most recent ones were given on June 2 and 4, 1994, under Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom the orchestra recorded the Symphony at that time for Teldec.

The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets and E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, side drum, military drum, tam-tam, celesta, harp, and strings. Approximate duration, 32 minutes.


In January 1934 the second of Shostakovich's operas, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, had a sensationally successful premiere in Leningrad. During the following two years the work was performed more than 80 times in that city, more than 90 in Moscow, and it was given in the United States and several countries in Western Europe. One of the few members of the audience anywhere who responded less than enthusiastically was Joseph Stalin, whose displeasure, after attending a Moscow performance in January 1936, led to an attack on Shostakovich and his opera in the newspaper Pravda on the 28 th of that month under the heading "Muddle Instead of Music." This was followed by a similar denunciation of his ballet The Limpid Stream on February 6. Shostakovich, then 29 years old and an international celebrity since the premiere of his First Symphony ten years earlier, found himself in official disgrace, an "enemy of the state." He withdrew his Fourth Symphony from its scheduled premiere (that work would not be heard until 1961) and "rehabilitated" himself grandly with his Fifth, which was introduced during the celebration of the 20 th anniversary of the October Revolution, in November 1937. The erstwhile "enemy of the people" was again a national hero, and exactly a year later he described his plans for his next symphony, which was to be an outright national epic.

In an article in the Literaturnaya Gazeta, Shostakovich wrote in some detail of a "Lenin Symphony," in which he would draw upon folk music and poetry to celebrate the memory of the revered leader. When the Sixth appeared a year after that, however, it bore no relation at all to the "Lenin" outline, and the composer offered no explanation. For whatever reason, he decided to let the Sixth reflect his own spirit, and save Lenin for later. (Some 22 years later, in 1961, the year in which his Fourth Symphony finally reached the public, he dedicated his Twelfth to Lenin, and gave its movements descriptive headings referring to the places and events of the Revolution.) When the Sixth was introduced in 1939, both the public and the critics, having expected something quite different, reacted coolly, saving their enthusiasm for the new cantata Prokofiev had drawn from his music for Sergei Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky and for a similarly proportioned work by Yuri Shaporin called On the Field of Kulikovo. In juxtaposition with these overtly patriotic choral offerings, Shostakovich's predominantly lyric symphony seemed to lack impact, and the form of the work was baffling-even offensive-to some listeners.

The Sixth is laid out in three movements. Instead of a conventional first movement, the opening one is an expansive Largo, about half-again as long as the two remaining movements combined, which may be the most straightforwardly lyric of all Shostakovich's symphonic movements; even in its moments of searing intensity it avoids harshness and remains darkly beautiful. It is not entirely without precedent: models can be found not only in the works of Mahler, which Shostakovich (if not his Soviet audience) knew and admired, but also in a familiar and beloved earlier Russian Symphony No. 6 in the same key as this one, Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. The difference, though, between these two symphonies, and between the Shostakovich and various other 19 th -century symphonies, is that Shostakovich in this case sustains the overall Largo mood and character throughout the long span, relying chiefly on variations in color and texture to provide contrast. In this respect the nearest parallel might in fact be in the obviously smaller-scaled but otherwise similarly disposed slow movements with which Joseph Haydn opened some of his most individualistic early symphonies, such as No. 22 in E-flat, called The Philosopher. Shostakovich, in fact, might well have given a similar title to his own Sixth, for in composing this unusual opening movement he is said to have had in mind the philosophy of his friend Mikhail Zoschenko (a prominent satirist and playwright, hounded out of the Party in the dark years preceding Stalin's death) on dealing with fear (an emotion Shostakovich himself had come to know well during his troubles over Lady Macbeth). Antecedents among his own symphonies are easily found in the more modestly proportioned slow movements of the First and Fifth.

What perhaps jarred the premiere audience more than the unusual nature of the opening movement was the curious contrast provided by the two successive ones, which constitute a good deal shorter than the first and apparently in a totally different character. Both are to some degree playful. The second movement is more or less a scherzo, more transparently scored than the Largo, and charged with fantasy and whimsy, while the finale is earthy, boisterous and dancelike, eventually taking on the character of a quick march, and not without a tinge of irony among its ingratiating qualities. Shostakovich's Soviet biographer Ivan Martynov, perhaps mindful of the original concept of a "Lenin" Symphony and eager to make the Sixth fit into some popular frame, interpreted the first movement as representing a struggle with the past, and the two fast ones as pictures of an optimistic Soviet present and future. That scenario doesn't seem to work, though; if we must look for "programmatic" significance in this work, the giddy final movement would more likely suggest some sort of burlesque of official celebration and glorification. In any event, Shostakovich himself apparently had less to say about his Sixth Symphony than almost any of his other major works, limiting himself to the allusion to Zoschenko in respect to the first movement.

Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra introduced this work to America a little more than a year after its Leningrad premiere, and they made the premiere recording of it at that time. Critical response here, too, was only lukewarm, the consensus being that the Sixth was uneven and "academic." Stokowski, Fritz Reiner and Eugene Ormandy were among the very few conductors anywhere who believed in the work enough to program it with any frequency, well into the middle 1960s. (Reiner recorded the Sixth in Pittsburgh; Stokowski recorded it again in Chicago during Reiner's directorship there.) Since their time the Sixth has gained more and more supporters, among conductors and audiences alike; many now regard this work as one of Shostakovich's most unforced personal statements and, despite its odd structure, perhaps the closest of his symphonies to the Classical ideal. In any event, few symphonies of the last century—and few Russian symphonies in particular—stand in less need of a dramatic or "programmatic" explication than this one.