Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, op 20 "The First of May"

Shostakovich was blessed with great productivity as a composer. Not for him those long, dry spells common to some other composers. After the Second Symphony, he became involved in both film scores and intermezzo music for the theater. In early 1929 he was commissioned to write the score for the film The New Babylon, the story of the Paris Commune of 1871. After viewing and studying the film and making detailed notes on the timing of each scene, two weeks later he delivered the completed piano score! At around the same time he wrote incidental music for Vladimir Mayakovsky's new play The Bedbug. In the summer of 1929, Shostakovich took a leisurely cruise along the Black Sea coast and started work on a new symphony, the Third. Over the same six-week 'vacation', he also worked on a ballet, Dinamiada.

There is not a lot of background information available about the Third Symphony. Its composition and structure mirrors that of the Second Symphony. It is in one uninterrupted movement, in four sections, the last of which is a choral setting. The Third was intended to be a more peaceful account of construction as opposed to the struggle depicted in the Second. Shostakovich even acknowledged the influence of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. But for all this, there are still real experimental elements in the symphony. There are lots of themes, for example, but as Shostakovich pointed out, none are repeated. Not surprisingly, there are elements that also reflect the film and theater music he was also composing. The symphony was premiered on 21 January 1930, to coincide with the anniversary of Lenin's death. It was repeated the next day and the reception was positive on both occasions. Here is the opening of the text of the choral setting by Semyon Kirsanov:

On the very first May Day
a torch was thrown into the past
a spark, growing into a fire,
and a flame enveloped the forest.
With the drooping fir tree's ears
the forest listened to the voices and noises
of the new May Day parade

And here is a performance of the whole symphony:

The choral finale certainly seems to have served its purpose, though it does not sound so impressive to us today. But those instrumental sections leading up to it contain some very interesting hints to Shostakovich's future symphonic music. The handling of the winds and brass is particularly impressive and the percussion plays a large part. But how do you hold a piece together if you aren't going to repeat themes? The leading Russian musicologist and critic of the time Boris Asafyev (1884 - 1949) offers some interesting ideas. He described this symphony as "practically the only attempt to produce a symphony from the oratory of revolution, from the atmosphere and intonations of the orators." That word, 'intonation' refers to a particularly Russian theory of musical expression about which there is very little written in English. The general idea is that in musical melodies you can give a suggestion of the rising and falling expression found in spoken language. This idea, by the way, was very important in the music of both the Czech Leoš Janáček and the Russian Modest Mussorgsky. Perhaps you can hear something of this in the symphony?

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