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8.550627 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 7, 'Leningrad'
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. The first of these, To October, was written in response to a commission from the state authorities and was intended to mark the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. The Third Symphony, completed in 1929, marked another celebration of the régime and was subtitled The First of May.
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, first 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. Its broadcast performance in the devastated city to which it is dedicated and subsequent performances in allied countries had, as the authorities had intended, a strong effect on morale in Leningrad and in Russia, and aroused emotions of patriotic sympathy abroad.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, grouped now with Prokotiev, Myaskovsky 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 régime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication of 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.
In Solomon Volkov's Testimony Shostakovich is recorded as claiming to have started planning his Seventh Symphony before the war began. The work was at heart a requiem marking the sufferings of the victims of totalitarianism in Russia. The first movements of the symphony were written down in the first months of the siege of Leningrad in the autumn of 1941 and in the circumstances of the day it proved a valuable instrument of wartime propaganda. The many performances of the symphony abroad under the most distinguished conductors and its official identification with the gallant Russian struggle against German invasion suited the then purposes of the Soviet government and matched the mood officially fostered in Britain and America.
Shostakovich had completed the first three movements of the Leningrad Symphony in the besieged city by the end of September 1941. In early October he and his wife and children were evacuated, first to Moscow, and then by train to Kuibyshev, the war-time capital. There he completed the fourth movement of the symphony before the end of December. The first performance of the work was given in Kuibyshev by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, which had been evacuated there. A broadcast performance followed in Moscow, but the most moving performance of all was given in August in Leningrad by surviving musicians of the Radio Orchestra and any others that could be found in a city now suffering extreme privation and under daily bombardment. The symphony was given a programme in the movement titles War, Reminiscences, The Vastness of Russia and Victory, opening with an idyllic picture of Leningrad in peace-time, followed by the march of the invading German armies, to a tune of particular banality. Shostakovich later withdrew the titles and it is now clear that the whole work has a much more ambigous intention than was supposed at the time of its first performances. Volkov records another remark of the composer about the Seventh Symphony, started at a time when Shostakovich was deeply moved by the Psalms of David and the notion of divine revenge for blood.
The Seventh Symphony is scored for a large orchestra, with a recommended string section of as many as eighty players, a woodwind section that includes an E flat and a bass clarinet, and a percussion section that calls for five timpani and a xylophone in addition to a battery of other instruments. The symphony also calls for two harps. Matching the large scale instrumentation, the duration is over seventy minutes. The first movement opens with a theme stated by unison strings joined by the bassoons. The march theme, over a repeated side-drum rhythm, is heard first from the plucked strings of the first violins and violas and the wood of the bow of the second violins. The tune is repeated with varied instrumentation and arrangement in a crescendo of twelve variations. The clangour dies away to be followed by a melancholy bassoon return to the second subject, taken up lyrically by the violins, a memory of another world, interrupted by the ominous distant reappearance of the drum-beat and the march theme.
The second movement starts with an apparently simple theme stated by the second violins, answered by the first violins. The oboe introduces a sad second subject, poignant memories interrupted by the shrill E flat clarinet. The melancholy of the movement is stressed still further in the instrumental colouring, when the second subject returns played by the bass clarinet, accompanied by the harp, and the insistent accompanying rhythm now varied and transferred from strings to flutes.
The mood of a requiem is evident in the moving Adagio third movement, introduced by solemn chords from woodwind, horns and harps, leading to a pensive violin melody. A bass rhythm recalled from the first movement ushers in a flute melody. The elegiac mood is broken by the dramatic appearance of a theme of starker intensity, its menacing accompanying rhythms giving way to a return to melancholy and a viola restatement of the second subject, before the brief reappearance of the first subject and the conclusion of the movement.
The last movement, officially expected to express triumph and hence bearing the initial title Victory, may be taken as ambiguous in intention. Certainly the Shostakovich of Testimony rejects the very idea of exultant triumphalism here, as in the Fifth Symphony, although the original verbal explanation of the movement, from which he never expressed overt dissent, explains the final movement as beginning with the idea of struggle for life and death, growing to radiant exultation in the victory of the fatherland. The finale starts after the third movement without a break, in a mood to which the timpani add an air of possible menace, with the sustained notes of the lower strings, the texture interrupted by the warning rhythms of oboe and French horn, before the struggle intensifies. References to the past recur, both rhythmic and melodic, before the final section of relative optimism, ending a work that is no mere Battle Symphony, and, in spite of the view of many critics, no exercise in patriotic platitude.
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
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