Chautauqua Symphony Notes for Week Four


Symphony No. 7 in C Major, op. 60 (“Leningrad”) Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, one of the Soviet Union’s greatest composers, was born in St. Petersburg on Sept. 12, 1906, and died in Moscow on Aug. 9, 1975. Although he composed in a wide variety of genres, he is best known for his 15 symphonies, works that stand among the finest examples of the genre from the mid-20th century. His seventh symphony (“Leningrad”) was first performed in Kuibyshev by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra under the direction of Samuil Abramovitch Samosud on March 5, 1942. It is dedicated to the city of Leningrad (now once again St. Petersburg). It is scored for a large orchestra comprising three flutes (second doubling alto flute and the third doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, three clarinets, (third doubling E-flat clarinet), two bassoons, contrabassoon, eight horns, six trumpets, six trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, bells, xylophone), two harps, piano and strings.

A play by David Pownall titled Master Class depicts Joseph Stalin and Marshall Zhdanov giving a music “lesson” to Prokofiev and Shostakovich, two masters of the 20th century who, at one point or another, had strayed from the true faith of socialist realism in their music. As the play progresses, all four individuals come to the realization that music, especially untexted (i.e., instrumental) music, refuses to conform to any political ideology.

History has shown, however, that tyrants and censors never seem to learn this lesson, and composers, like Shostakovich, who had to labor under the yoke of totalitarianism are the ones who have paid the heaviest price. His symphonies (especially Nos. 5 through 15) and chamber music (i.e., the String Quartet No. 8) bear eloquent witness to his pain.

It was texted music — the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District — that got Shostakovich into the most trouble. Mercilessly attacked in Pravda in 1936,

Shostakovich “redeemed” himself with his popular Symphony No. 5, composed and first performed the next year. Biographers and the music-loving public, while unanimous in praise of the artistic merits of this work, cannot agree as to whether its triumphant finale truly represents a sincere redemption of a composer returning to the principles of socialist realism, or, by dint of its over-the-top optimism, stands for a forced, insincere, capitulation to political pressure. Whatever the answer, the work propelled Shostakovich into the international spotlight.

His Symphony No. 7, interestingly, played into the heroic side of the Shostakovich public persona, as exhibited by a propagandistic photograph of the composer taken on July 19, 1941. In this photograph, he is donned in a fire helmet and brandishing a water hose, protecting the roof of the Leningrad Music Conservatory from the falling of incendiary bombs launched by the invading Nazi forces. A drawing derived from the photo appeared on the cover of the July 20, 1942, issue of Time magazine. The accompanying article, “Music: Shostakovich & the Guns” (easily accessible online) makes for fascinating reading. While unequivocally depicting Shostakovich as a war hero, not everything about him and his new symphony in the article was uncritical. Take, for example, this provocative excerpt:

“Written for a mammoth orchestra, Shostakovich’s Seventh, though it is no blatant battle piece, is a musical interpretation of Russia at war. In the strict sense, it is less a symphony than a symphonic suite. Like a great wounded snake, dragging its slow length, it uncoils for 80 minutes from the orchestra. There is little development of its bold, bald, foursquare themes. There is no effort to reduce the symphony’s loose, sometimes skeletal structures to the epic compression and economy of the classic symphony.”

Elsewhere, the unidentified author wrote:

“(T)he Seventh is probably the most emotionally mature of Shostakovich’s symphonies, is almost certain to be one of his most popular. But it still leaves an important question unanswered: Is Composer Shostakovich the last peak in the European musical range whose summit was Beethoven, or is he the beginning of a new sierra?”

It is safe to say that more people today are familiar with the external circumstances of the “Leningrad” symphony and its transmission from Russia via microfilm from Kuibyshev (where the composer was then residing) via Teheran, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Cairo and Brazil to New York in April 1942, and its American premiere on July 19, 1942, in a radio broadcast of the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini (himself by then celebrated as an enemy of fascism). A performance of the work in London’s Royal Albert Hall, featuring Henry J. Wood leading the London Symphony Orchestra, took place a few weeks earlier. In the United States, a battle royal for the honor of giving its North American premiere took place among several conductors and institutions, including Serge Koussevitzky (Boston), Artur Rodzinski (Cleveland), Dimitri Mitropoulos (Minneapolis) and Eugene Ormandy (Philadelphia). Even after NBC won its rights for the premiere, a decision had to be made between Leopold Stokowski and Toscanini, both of whom were contracted to conduct the orchestra that season.

Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony was performed no fewer than 62 times during the 1942 to 1943 concert season, but soon fell out of favor as the emblem of struggle against, and hoped-for victory over, the evil forces of the Nazi war machine, replaced, ironically enough, by both Beethoven’s and Shostakovich’s fifth symphonies. Some critics had little time for the piece, including Virgil Thomson, who damned it as music “for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted.” (New York Herald Tribune, Oct. 18, 1942)

Indeed, the most familiar segment of the “Leningrad” symphony’s four movements is the 12-minute-long episode in the first movement that itself “interrupts” its sonata-form structure by substituting for an expected development section a set of variations on a martial theme introduced by an obstinate (ostinato) rhythmic figure in the snare drum. Each variation features changes of orchestral color, harmony and dynamics, growing in volume and intensity in a similar manner to Maurice Ravel’s celebrated choreographic Boléro (1928). The climax of this intense buildup is cataclysmic.

There is evidence that the banal march theme itself (as well as the symphony as a whole) was composed before the Nazi siege of Leningrad and was meant to represent Stalin, only later to be described as a “theme of evil” as personified as Adolf Hitler.

One of theme’s phrases — a descending sequence — also bears the imprimatur of a quotation from the song, “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” from Franz Lehar’s operetta, The Merry Widow. If this is so, it perhaps may be a humorous reference to Shostakovich’s son, Maxim. We also know that The Merry Widow was a favorite of Hitler’s, and its use may imply a cruel deconstruction (or trivialization) of the enemy. More famously, a fierce parody of the sequence became grist for Béla Bartók’s mill as it became the “interruption” in the “Interrupted Intermezzo” movement of his Concerto for Orchestra (1943), composed in part while the Hungarian composer lay in a New York City hospital bed. To make matters even more confusing, a three-measure tag at the end of the march theme bears a striking similarity to a theme from Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5.

So which narrative is the true one? Invading army? Political satire? Personal self-reference? As is often the case with Shostakovich, we may never know the true answer to what extra-musical ideas he had in mind when composing. The music must speak for itself. As Richard Taruskin, an expert of Russian music astutely observed, “It is time to recognize that the meaning of any symphony … is the product of its history … a history that only begins with its composition … (The ‘Leningrad’ symphony) gives the lie to the dear old dichotomy between the ‘purely musical’ and the ‘extramusical’…” (MLA Notes, 1993)

The first movement opens with a noble theme that is recapitulated toward the movement’s end, as well as being reprised at the end of the entire symphony. Its close brings back a remembrance of the march theme. The second movement originally bore the title “Memories,” but is simply marked by its tempo of Moderato (poco allegretto). Its whimsical fugal opening by the strings leads to extended solos for oboe and English horn. The whirlwind middle section brings back the ferocity of the first movement, and the short movement ends with a much modified version of its opening, this time featuring an extended solo for the bass clarinet. The spirit of the movement’s opening and close is reminiscent of the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, an unsurprising feature given Shostakovich’s affinity for the great Austrian master.

The third movement, Adagio, begins with a strikingly solemn “chorale” for winds, horns, and harps, alternating with an elegiac statement in the strings. Once again, Shostakovich’s original title, “Our Country’s Wide Spaces,” tells us precious little as to the movement’s meaning, despite his later explanation that it was a portrait of Leningrad itself.

The next episode brightens the mood with an extended solo for flute (soon joined by the second flute in duet), all punctuated by pizzicato in the lower strings. The strings then pick up the melodic thread. A more turbulent passage ensues, over which Shostakovich eventually superimposes the “chorale” idea, first in the brass and then again in the winds. The violins restate the elegiac theme from the beginning, which soon settles into an uneasy calm that ushers the way into the “Victory” finale.

The final movement begins in mystery over a sustained pedal tone in the lower strings and kettledrum. The music eventually wends its way back to its original key of C major, but not before an extended episode in the darker minor mode in the shape of a grim and ferocious dance. One of the many splashes of orchestral color comes with the use of a kind of pizzicato (sometimes referred to by string players as “Bartók pizz”) whereby the string violently slaps against the fingerboard.

A new passage unfolds, very much reminiscent of the triple-meter rhythm of the ancient sarabande. Little by little, the music climbs in sonorous space and intensity until it reaches its apex and ends in triumph as the noble opening theme of the first movement returns in the brass. Whoever the “enemy” of this epic symphony may have been, the audience is left confident that the human spirit has prevailed.

Musicologist David B. Levy is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He has also taught at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. A Beethoven scholar, he founded the New Beethoven Research Group and has lectured widely throughout the United States and Europe.

Tags : Chautauqua Symphony NotesDmitri Dmitriyevich ShostakovichWeek Four 2018
David Levy

The author David Levy