Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1

A commentor mentioned the other day that he didn't know the Shostakovich symphonies nearly as well as the string quartets. My experience was different as I did a graduate seminar in the symphonies and only much later got to know the string quartets. I did a series of posts on the quartets, starting here. But I haven't paid the same attention to the symphonies apart from this brief post. So I propose to do a post on each of the fifteen symphonies.

Shostakovich, age 19

We sometimes forget that Shostakovich was close to being a child prodigy. His Symphony No. 1 was written when he was merely nineteen years old and is very much part of the standard symphonic repertoire. There are very few symphonies written by someone so young of which this could be said. Beethoven's first symphony, for example, dates from when he was thirty years old. Mind you, Mozart's first symphony, K. 16 in E flat major, dates from 1764 when he was all of eight years old. However, it is certainly not standard orchestral repertoire, only appearing in integral recordings of all Mozart's symphonies.

Young Shostakovich, "Mitya" as he was called, attended the Petrograd Conservatory beginning in 1919. First, something about names: Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, went to the conservatory in Petrograd and spent much of his career in Leningrad. But these are all the same place! In 1914 the name was changed to Petrograd and in 1924, around the time of the composition of Shostakovich's first symphony, changed again to Leningrad. In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was changed back to St. Petersburg.

At the conservatory he was both a piano major, giving many performances of virtuoso repertoire, and a composition major. At fifteen, Shostakovich performed the "Hammerklavier" sonata of Beethoven, an extremely challenging work. At the time Alexander Glazunov, the composer, was head of the conservatory and a great supporter of Mitya. His composition teacher was Maximilian Steinberg, son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, who gave him a thorough grounding in harmony and a sense of aesthetic taste. In January of 1924 he began an assignment for Steinberg's class: the composition of a symphony. On seeing the first sketches for the scherzo, Steinberg was very critical, calling it 'grotesque'. After some starts and stops, the finale giving him particular trouble, the symphony was completed in April of 1925 and given its premiere a little over a year later by the Leningrad Philharmonic. There are four movements, the scherzo coming second:

  1. Allegretto - Allegro non troppo
  2. Allegro - meno mosso - Allegro - meno mosso
  3. Lento - Largo - Lento (attaca)
  4. Allegro molto - Lento - Allegro molto - Meno mosso - Allegro molto - Molto meno mosso - Adagio
Though the first movement is in conventional sonata form, it has a bit of the air of the vaudeville and theatre music that Shostakovich was playing to accompany silent films--something he was driven to to contribute to family after the death of his father a few years before. The second movement is the scherzo, possibly based on the one he was previously criticized for. The slow third movement begins with a solo for oboe and features a quote from Wagner's Sigfried. The last movement, written in one furious week, features a tympani solo and may show some influence of Stravinsky's Petrushka in the fact that the symphony has a piano part and also in its sometimes satirical tone.

The premiere of the symphony, in May 1926, was a huge success and a great beginning to his career. This premiere was followed a year later by a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic and a year after that by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Let me hasten to say that both of these highly-esteemed orchestras were not in the habit of performing music written by conservatory students from the Soviet Union! Shostakovich, in this precocious work, had captured some of the spirit of the times. The first and second themes of the first movement are a cheeky march and a teasing waltz and the finale mocks the pathos of the slow movement. Perhaps his experience as a silent-film accompanist shows in the quick 'cuts' between sections and in the tendency to expressive extremes. Now let's listen to the piece:


Craig said...

I am looking forward to reading this series of posts. I have been planning, in a hazy sort of way, to embark on a "listening project" in which I will work my way through all Shostakovich's symphonies and string quartets. I have been looking at David Hurwitz's book on the symphonies and Wendy Lesser's book on the quartets as possible companions for this journey. These posts will be a good resource too. Are there any particularly good books on Shostakovich that you would recommend?

Joel Lo Observador said...

Just like Craig, I'm so happy and very excited by these series of posts you are going to make. I love Shostakovich symphonies, but I'm just a listener. And to have the oportunity of getting this insights by a musician-musicologist is great (and for free haha).

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks to you both for supporting my proposed series of posts. I am looking forward to it myself as it will be a good way to re-familiarize myself with the symphonies.

Craig, if you look at the reviews of the Hurwitz book you will see that mine, under the name B. R. Townsend, is the third and not entirely favorable. I think Wendy Lesser's book has some similar problems that I talked about in this post:

As for books on Shostakovich, two that I find useful are Laurel Fay's Shostakovich: A Life and Shostakovich Studies, ed. by David Fanning. The latter contains an absolutely brilliant essay by Richard Taruskin on the Fifth Symphony.

Craig said...

I am glad I asked!

Your comments on Hurwitz' book are sensible. I actually read his book on Mahler, which is very similar, and while I found it somewhat helpful in getting a grasp on the structure of those large compositions, it does have all of the weaknesses you mentioned in your review.

As to that book on the string quartets, I can again see why it might not be ideal. It is hard to write in a generalized, non-technical way about music without falling into generalizations and cliches.

The trouble is that those of us who are not musicologists, and whose understanding of music theory is limited, can sometimes find it difficult to follow material written for those who can. I enjoy reading Taruskin; even though he sometimes loses me in the technicalities, I can usually still follow the thread.

But I do understand your points. I am a physicist, and I find non-technical explanations of physics for "dummies" to be extremely annoying, often misleading, and a waste of time. I'm not at all surprised that you feel the same way about similarly dumbed-down writing on music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, the great failure of musicology now is that it is too much written for specialists. A typical musicological article is laden with jargon and technicalities, written only for other musicologists. Taruskin, while he deals with technicalities, often tries to write for the general public.

Thank you very much for the comment. My purpose is to write for the general reader, but one who is not afraid to pick up a nodding acquaintance with a few technicalities!

Nathan Shirley said...

Shostakovich was heavily influenced by Prokofiev, and you can hear that especially in these early works. Yes there are certainly Stravinsky influences in there, and Stravinsky no doubt played a role in Prokofiev's music. But in this symphony Prokofiev comes through loud and clear, though you can still hear that Shostakovich quality that would later become much more distinct (some of the piano parts really hint at it).

While Shostakovich was still at the conservatory Prokofiev stopped by one day, wasn't too impressed by most of the composition students work, but really got excited about Shostakovich's music. His friend, the composer Myaskovsky who was there too said, "You only like him because he's imitating your style!"

Bryan Townsend said...

Great points, Nathan. I have had passing encounters with Prokofiev, including one lengthy one with the piano concertos, but never felt I knew his music very well. Thanks so much for making the Prokofiev-Shostakovich connection.