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Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54

About the Work

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quick Look Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Mark Elder, conductor/Louis Lortie, piano, performs Prokofiev Mar. 27 - 29, 2008
© Richard Freed

Shostakovich, a "hero of art" in the Soviet Union since the premiere of his First Symphony a few months before his twentieth birthday, was astonished by the censure both he and the conductor Nikolai Malko received in 1929 for his clever orchestration of Vincent Youmans’s song "Tea for Two." Malko actually left the country for good shortly after that incident. Even after that, though, the composer could not have been prepared for the severity of the rebuke that came his way in 1936 for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District. That work had had a sensationally successful premiere in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was called then) in January 1934; within two years it was given another eighty performances there and more than ninety in Moscow; it was given in the United States and several countries in Western Europe. One of the few members of an 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 28th of that month, under the heading "Muddle Instead of Music." Nine days later the paper ran a similar denunciation of Shostakovich’s ballet The Limpid Stream. The 29-year-old composer suddenly found himself in official disgrace, branded an "enemy of the state" at a time when such labeling often preceded imprisonment, exile, and worse. Possibly under pressure, he withdrew his Fourth Symphony from its scheduled premiere (it would not be heard until 1961) and "rehabilitated" himself grandly with his Fifth, which was introduced during the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. His status as a national hero thus restored, he announced a year later his plans for his next symphony, which was to be an outright national epic.

In an article in the Literaturnaya Gazeta in November 1938, 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 was introduced in Leningrad, however, on November 5, 1939, it bore no relation 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. (In 1961, the year in which his Fourth Symphony finally reached the public, he dedicated his Twelfth to Lenin, and gave its individual movements descriptive headings referring to the places and events of the Revolution.) The premiere of the Sixth received a cool reception from both the public and the critics, who had been led to expect something quite different and saved their enthusiasm for the new cantata Prokofiev had created 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. Juxtaposed with those overtly patriotic choral offerings, Shostakovich’s predominantly lyric symphony seemed to lack impact, and even the form of the work was jarring to some listeners.

The Sixth is laid out in three movements. The opening one is an expansive Largo, about half-again as long as the two remaining movements combined. Even in its moments of searing intensity, this expansive opening movement avoids harshness and remains darkly beautiful. There are models of a sort to be found among the works of Mahler, whom Shostakovich revered, and in the familiar and beloved earlier Russian Symphony No. 6 in the same key as this one, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The difference, between these two symphonies, and between the Shostakovich and various other nineteenth-century symphonies, is that here Shostakovich sustains the overall Largo character and mood throughout the long span, relying chiefly on variations in color and texture to provide contrast. In this respect the nearest parallel might 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 might well have given a similar title to his own Sixth, for in describing this unusual opening movement he remarked on the philosophy of his friend Mikhail Zoschenko, a prominent satirist and playwright, on dealing with fear. (Zoschenko was eventually hounded out of the Communist Party in the dark years preceding Stalin’s death, when Shostakovich was again confronting fear.)

What may have jarred the premiere audience more than the unusual nature of the opening movement was the curious contrast provided by the two successive ones. Both are a good deal shorter than the first and in a character that appears to be utterly different; both are to some degree downright playful. The second movement is more or less a scherzo, more transparently scored than the preceding Largo and charged with fantasy and whimsy, while the finale is earthy, boisterous and dancelike, eventually taking on the character of a vigorous, exhibitionistic parade—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 stgruggle 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, and 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 seems to have had less to say about his Sixth Symphony than about 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 immediately recorded it. 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 rerecorded it in Chicago during Reiner’s tenure there.) Since their time the Sixth has gained more supporters, among conductors and audiences alike; many now regard the work as one of Shostakovich’s most unforced personal statements. At the same time, it may be said that few symphonies of the last century—and few Russian symphonies in particular—stand in less need of a dramatic or "programmatic" explication.