We think of Shostakovich as being an outstanding composer of symphonies, string quartets and concertos. But he might also have become known as a great opera composer as well. After the early absurdist opera The Nose, in 1930 he embarked on a new project with no commission in hand. The text he chose was a short story from 1864 by Nikolai Leskov: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a lurid tale of a bored, frustrated and sexually unfulfilled wife of a provincial merchant. She takes a lover and in order to maintain the liaison, commits a series of murders with her lover. The opera was complete by August 1932 and was immediately accepted for performance in both Moscow and Leningrad. Here is Act 1, scene 1, just to give you an idea.
I think there is no doubt that Shostakovich had great gifts for musical drama: he wrote a number of very successful ballets and innumerable film scores. But this, only his second opera, would also be his last. Initially it was an enormous success with theater people, critics and the public. It was regarded as a huge milestone in Soviet music. Within two years it saw productions worldwide.
In December 1935 a new production of Lady Macbeth was unveiled at the Bolshoy in Moscow and at the same time a work by a young composer, Ivan Dzerzhinsky's The Quiet Don, was also being performed. On the 17th of January Joseph Stalin, Vyascheslav Molotov and other high-ranking officials decided to attend Dzerzhinsky's opera. The composer and director were summoned to Stalin's box to receive a few criticisms of the production, but also Stalin's blessing. A few days later Stalin and his entourage attended a performance of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth, but this time, Stalin and his associates left before the end and Shostakovich was not summoned to meet with Stalin personally. Instead, two days later an unsigned editorial (indicating that it was official policy) appeared in Pravda, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The piece was entitled "Muddle Instead of Music" and was a vicious attack on Lady Macbeth.
From the very first moment of the opera the listener is flabbergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of a musical phrase drown, struggle free and disappear again in the din, the grinding, the squealing.This kind of music was condemned as 'coarse naturalism' or 'formalism' whereas the Soviet masses were assumed to demand a genuine, simple, accessible musical language: what became known as socialist realism. This editorial was followed by another, condemning Shostakovich's ballet The Limpid Stream. For Shostakovich, until this moment the golden child of Soviet music, things would never be the same. Now he was cast as a pernicious purveyor of cultural depravity.
Sometime in 1935, Shostakovich had begun work on his monumental Symphony No. 4, therefore it was planned out before the Lady Macbeth scandal. By April or May 1936 the work was complete. It was a huge symphony, only the 7th would be longer, and it required the largest forces to perform, on the order of 125 musicians. It was the fruit of long study of Mahler's symphonies. There are three movements, two large framing movements, a half hour long each, and a short, central movement.
The premiere of the symphony by the Leningrad Philharmonic was scheduled for December 1936. An emissary of the Union of Composers was sent to pressure Shostakovich to withdraw the symphony. There are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened, but there was no performance and the premiere did not take place until 1961, years after the death of Stalin. It was undoubtedly the case that allowing the performance to go forward might have been very dangerous indeed for Shostakovich, who for years after his condemnation, kept a suitcase always packed in case he was arrested in the middle of the night and sent off to who knows where.
Before saying anything more, let's listen to the symphony. Here is Mariss Jansons with the Bayerischen Rundfunks:
The form of the symphony is famously problematic. Composers such as Shostakovich were trained in the basic classical forms such as the song form, rondo form and sonata allegro. In the first movement of the 4th Symphony, Shostakovich goes to great lengths to obscure the sonata form so much so that to a casual listener the movement seems like a free fantasia. Some things to note: the frenetic string fugato at the 15' mark is actually a development of the first theme. The second movement is a Mahler-like intermezzo in rondo form. Rondo, by the way, is a form where a theme keeps returning, interspersed with variations and developments: ABACADA. The third movement begins with a funeral march that again recalls Mahler. After that there are a number of waltz-like episodes, some quite whimsical, before the ending, a seven minute coda of great intensity in which the brass and percussion play a leading role.
Shostakovich's own intention, as shared with friends, was to write a work without following any known models; that freely sought to pursue the musical ideas themselves. This was perhaps the last symphony in which he felt free to do that: from the 5th Symphony on, there were always political dangers to be kept in mind...