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8.550626 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 12
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the son of an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As a pianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.
Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol, was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Golden Age was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism.
In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, and performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title Katerina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to which Shostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time.
In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet. In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now with Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social and practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of his compositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961.
In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title Katerina Ismailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.
The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity and lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and Küchelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9th August.
The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg had been fired on by troops, Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism. The testimony of others and a recent scholarly survey of the life and work of Shostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough. Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice of artistic integrity.
Shostakovich wrote his Sixth Symphony in 1939, star1ing it in April and completing the work in October. The pre-war years had brought great suffering and the death of musicians, actors, writers and poets, in Stalin's desire for political or1hodoxy and the establishment of art that reflected the principles of Socialist Realism. By 1939, however, it had proved necessary to consider a non-aggression pact with Hitler's Germany, eventually signed in August 1939, on the eve of Hitler's attack on Poland. Political circumstances dictated a less rigorous control of music, which would prove to have propaganda value abroad, if couched in more conventional bourgeois terms. The Sixth Symphony, however, written under what might be regarded in part as more favourable conditions, proved puzzling to contemporary critics. It was first performed in Leningrad on 5th November 1939 under the conductor Mravinsky at a Festival of Soviet Music which also included first performances of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky cantata and of Shaporin's On the Field of Kulikovo, these two works of obvious and immediate patriotic appeal. Shostakovich, perhaps as a subterfuge, had promised a symphony on the subject of Lenin. The new symphony was no such thing. Instead there was a three-movement work, starting not with a symphonic first movement but an extended brooding Largo, followed by two very much shor1er movements, relatively light-hear1ed in vein. The Sixth Symphony is scored for an orchestra of piccolo, pairs of flutes and oboes, cor anglais, a pair of clarinets with an additional E flat clarinet and bass clarinet, two bassoons and double bassoon, three trumpets, four horns, three trombones and tuba, timpani, tambourine, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam and xylophone, harp, celesta and strings. The instrumentation provides the opportunity for wide varieties of orchestral colour, but is some way from the extravagant instrumentation of the Fourth Symphony. The opening Largo is sombre in mood, based on elements of its principal theme, announced at the beginning of the movement and a later closely related theme for cor anglais. The music leads through an extended meditative passage for two flutes to the return of aversion of the opening, proceeding, as the sound dies away, to the end of the movement. The influence of Bach has been suggested, in particular of the St. Matthew Passion, a work Shostakovich was studying with students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he had recently been appointed professor of composition. The second movement, in what might seem ironic juxtaposition, is opened by the pert E flat clarinet, accompanied by the plucked strings of the violins. A dynamic climax, followed by the timpani, leads to are turn of an inverted version of the opening and finally to an ending marked in the wind pppp. The last movement starts in an ironic mood recalling that of Prokofiev in the Classical Symphony in a world of Mahlerian variety, with elements of the banal included in a truer reflection of the universal than Socialist Realism, with its descent into popular philistinism, could propose.
If the Sixth Symphony abandoned any attempt to portray Lenin, the Twelfth Symphony of Shostakovich, completed in 1961, returned initially to this once declared intention. In the end, however, the new symphony, although dedicated to the memory of Lenin, reflects the events of its title, The Year 1917. The original intention had been to open the work with music recalling Lenin's youth, going on in a second movement to portray Lenin as leader of the October Revolution. The third movement would commemorate the death of Lenin and the fourth life after Lenin, following the path that he had revealed. The earlier idea of using poetic texts by Mayakovsky and others was abandoned, and the symphony was completed as a purely instrumental work, opening with Revolutionary Petrograd. Razliv is the place near which Lenin remained in hiding and the "Aurora" was the battle-cruiser that fired the shots at the Winter Palace that started the October Revolution. The title of the last movement, The Dawn of Humanity, is self-explanatory. The symphony was first performed on 1st October 1961 in Leningrad, where it was well received. In Western Europe the following year it was greeted coldly as an exercise in political conformism.
The Twelfth Symphony is scored for a less elaborate orchestra than the Sixth. It opens in sombre Russian mood, its first subject announced by cellos and double basses, leading to a second subject, both associated with the popular struggle, then developed in an excited central section. Drums briefly introduce Razliv, a slow movement, Lenin’s dark night of the soul before the October Revolution. It is difficult not to suspect a tongue-in-cheek element in the music, particularly when reference is made to the Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution, a work long discarded in which Shostakovich commemorated the death of a boy whom he had seen killed by a Cossack sabre in St. Petersburg. This may, with hindsight at least, suggest that Shostakovich saw Lenin as the cause of the slaughter and suffering that the Revolution brought. The third movement is marked by cross rhythms in music that is again thematically related to what has gone before. The banal seems to intrude further into the last movement of what is in many ways a very Russian symphony, although one may still suspect the irony here perceived by some in the conclusion of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
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