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Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10

About the Work

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quick Look Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Midori, violin, plays Britten Dec. 1 - 3, 2011
© Thomas May

Many composers fumble with numerous first attempts before finding their voice. But some artists succeed in planting their flag early on with astonishing confidence: the first symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler, respectively, are famous examples that announce a boldly individuated grasp of the genre. But even these composers were relatively mature in comparison with Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) when he composed his First Symphony. Written between 1924 and 1925, while he was a student at the Leningrad Conservatory, the work had to wait until the following year before its premiere-but even by that point, the composer was still a teenager. The white-hot ambition fueling the young Shostakovich is perhaps more akin to that of his contemporary (and, later in his life, personal friend), Benjamin Britten, who similarly came to attention as a prodigy composer. But the comparison Russian critics of the time tended to make was to the First Symphony of Alexander Glazunov, written at the age of sixteen and premiered in 1882.

Since that time, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had of course intervened; Shostakovich grew up in its immediate aftermath. All too briefly, a period of remarkable creative ferment was allowed to flourish, inspiring such outpourings as the abstract painting of Kasimir Malevich and the anti-naturalist, avant-garde theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold (who, impressed by the young Shostakovich's First Symphony in particular, invited him to collaborate with his theater company )-not to mention the heady rush of projects taking advantage of the new art of cinema. All this would of course tragically prove to be a phase of fleeting, illusory freedom. Just a decade after his First Symphony won acclaim, Shostakovich found himself the target of Stalin's thought police and was tarred and feathered as a musical deviant.

But all that still lay in the future. In the First Symphony we encounter a young artist proudly, exuberantly, even cockily giving free rein to his imagination's wild but purposeful impulses. Despite the obvious digestion of external influences- Tchaikovsky, early Prokofiev, Stravinsky (Petrushka in particular), even Mahler-a striking sense of a new voice already begins to emerge. Still, and not surprisingly, Shostakovich remained deeply concerned about how his music would be accepted. His composition teacher had scolded him for the "grotesque" quality of the scherzo movement; the composer himself toyed with the idea of labeling the work a "symphony-grotesque." But the premiere proved to be a triumph far beyond what he dared hope for and quickly established the young Shostakovich's reputation.

A brief introductory dialog between muted trumpet and bassoon launches the First Symphony in an almost jauntily offhand way. A flourish from the clarinet foreshadows the intriguing variety of solo instrumental spotlights that characterize Shostakovich's scoring throughout. Eventually the tempo speeds up and the clarinet announces a march-like theme to set the first movement proper in motion; this is then set against a waltz-like tune. Overall, Shostakovich's formal design in this four-movement symphony is conservative enough; what's remarkably innovative is his juxtaposition of moods, as well as his use of orchestral coloring to enhance them. The movement progresses with a collage of solo moments and brash, full-bodied climaxes. Several commentators have pointed to the composer's work at the time accompanying silent films so as to help support his family: a possible source for some of the vaudevillian, "lowbrow" tone that is part of the mix here. Even more, Shostakovich arguably translates the techniques of contemporary cinema-with its panorama shots, close-ups, and montage-into his own compositional process.

The Scherzo races ahead in brisk perpetual motion, with the piano adding a notably fresh color. Woodwinds then conjure archaic, primitivist associations in the contrasting middle section. After a return of the fast music, the music comes to a sudden dead end in a shocking twist that dramatically changes the mood: the piano pounds a series of chords, while pulsing violins bring the movement to a close of quiet desperation. The slow movement reveals yet another side of Shostakovich. Following the boisterous invention, humor, and vivid colors of the first two movements comes a posture of deep introspection. In a mournful solo, the oboe traces a melody, hauntingly shaped, whose pathos spreads to the rest of the orchestra. A terse, fateful motif of six notes appears and then dominates the landscape. Toward the end, the strings radiate a note of false consolation that is dispelled by the snare drum.

This last gesture propels the music onward, without pause, into the finale, whose disparate material seems to sprawl and ranges widely, from a solemn preludial section to a whirlwind of fleeting scales and fanfares. A solo violin introduces a dreamy oasis colored by bells and piano figurations before the manic faster music returns to build to a savage climax. In one of the Symphony's most memorable passages, Shostakovich spotlights the timpani in a solo that recycles the fateful motif from the slow movement-here inverted to sound more like a question mark. The slow movement is further evoked, and then Shostakovich proceeds to conclude the work with fanfare-laden gestures. In hindsight, with our knowledge of his later career, it's hard not to hear in this an already characteristically ambiguous blend of triumphalism and defiance.