|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:
- Allegretto - Allegro non troppo
- Allegro - meno mosso - Allegro - meno mosso
- Lento - Largo - Lento (attaca)
- 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: