Perhaps we are fortunate that two of the greatest symphonic composers of the 20th century were born and died in Mother Russia. There they suffered privations and harassments of such intensity that many lesser souls would have fled the country or abandoned their art entirely, or both.
Instead Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) and his younger colleague Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) turned out one masterpiece after another. Together their work makes up a disproportionately large share of the most significant, engaging orchestral music of the era.
Two recording projects now underway will encourage everyone to give them another listen. These projects are being directed by fine conductors—Marin Alsop for Prokofiev and Vasily Petrenko for Shostakovich—and the discs and downloads emanate from Naxos, which means that you can acquire whole sets without auctioning off Grandma’s jewelry.
Let’s begin with Prokofiev. Childhood spent as musical prodigy? Check. First works generated heaps of acclaim and criticism? Check. Went abroad to build his reputation? Check. But here’s where the story gets interesting: after stints in Chicago and Paris, where his spikiest modern music was applauded, he began a decade’s worth of return visits to Russia, where he gave concerts, scored films, and in 1936 finally took a Moscow apartment with his young family. In Russia he could never again be certain that his edgiest music would be well-received. He began to write more often in a warm post-Romantic manner, for larger ensembles and in traditional Russian genres like ballet. Did Prokofiev undertake this transformation because of the well-documented political pressure placed on him by the Stalin regime? Or had Romanticism—rich melodies, lushly scored—always been lurking in his heart, just waiting for a chance to speak?
Dissonance never completely disappeared from Prokofiev’s palette: witness his Sixth Symphony, which, as the late Michael Steinberg wryly noted, is “not exactly soft.” Nor had the composer banished Romantic accessibility from his vocabulary even during his most radical early years. After all, he wrote the lovely opening melody of the Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1915, in the midst of a love affair. When the concerto was finally premiered in Paris in 1923, on the same bill with Stravinsky’s icy Octet for Winds, it flopped. Too gooey for the Parisians, apparently, but not for Prokofiev.
Where should you begin your survey of the Prokofiev symphonies? I recommend the Fifth, a well-loved work that incorporates all four “basic lines” that the composer recognized as vital to his lifework: “classical,” “modern,” “motoric,” and “lyrical.” It also exemplifies Prokofiev’s strengths and weaknesses as a symphonic composer. His creative process seems to have been essentially dramatic or pictorial, hence his success with opera, film scores, and ballet. But the symphony is a genre in which structure of a more abstract nature is needed. That structure has to sustain a narrative—must convincingly present a succession of expressive gestures—without the aid of a sung libretto or dancers acting out a scenario. It’s a matter of musical unities and relationships. Themes that work quite well in a film or ballet may play out as episodic or disjointed in a purely symphonic context. (This is one reason that listening to a film soundtrack is seldom as rewarding as viewing the film itself.)
For his symphonies, Prokofiev often found himself adapting material that had originated in a ballet, a discarded operatic sketch, or something similar. Although the Fifth also contains music that originated elsewhere, it is dominated by related, organically unfolding themes that seem like a direct expression of the composer’s stated intention: to write music “glorifying the human spirit . . . praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.” Undoubtedly this statement also fulfilled Soviet dicta for politically appropriate wartime music.
The first movement launches immediately into its primary theme, a lyrical yet tension-filled rising line given first as an unharmonized statement for woodwinds and then in a series of richer, more fully harmonized versions from the full orchestra:
After further orchestral ruminations on that theme, Prokofiev introduces the secondary theme; it is clearly a member of the same family, even more lyrical than the first. This new theme expands more quickly and leads to a closing peroration:
That closing motif, or something very like it, will return in other movements. Prokofiev offsets these unifying actions by continually refreshing the orchestration and harmonization of the main material. Here is that first theme again, at the beginning of the first movement’s development:
And here it is again “after the storm,” transformed again and now signaling the recapitulation:
If the first and third movements illustrate Prokofiev’s “lyrical” bent, the riveting second-movement scherzo neatly demonstrates his “motoric” side. Compared with my reference recordings of this symphony—Koussevitsky, Leinsdorf, Gergiev —Alsop’s rendition of the scherzo times out about a minute longer. It’s not that she pokes along in the relentless outer sections; they are as full of snap as anyone’s. Rather, she takes exceptional care in setting up a contrast between the lyrical middle part and the driving pace of the surrounding territory. In her interpretation, the intervening materials offer a true respite, not merely a thematic change-up. That brings the scherzo into a more meaningful relationship with the meditative character of movements one and three.
Prokofiev’s drive to unify the symphony also helps explain the reappearance of the first-movement primary theme as the finale gets underway. He brings it back in an especially poignant scoring for four-part cellos:
And then we’re off, galloping to an affirmative conclusion that largely washes away the hazards and struggles of the earlier movements. Very Beethovenian, that. It probably also met the requirements of Commissar Zhdanov and the Politburo for “socialist realism,” i.e., Official Optimism, i.e., a happy ending.
I do not always find this part especially persuasive. To some extent the conductor is faced with a dilemma: either integrate the thrust of the finale with the mood of the preceding music and thus rein in some of its “animal spirits,” or else go hell-for-leather, which raises the risk of producing caricature, especially toward the very end. There Prokofiev really lets fly—just listen:
As the music reaches a climax, the orchestration becomes increasingly shrill, loaded with percussive punctuations and shrieking woodwind figures, and then . . . a quieter passage, but not without anxiety as the trumpets enter, low-ranged and nasal, suggesting residual danger, doubt, or (worse yet!) some vulgar, naysaying Party official voicing his displeasure. A moment later the symphony’s seeming high spirits bubble quickly up again, dealing a triumphant final blow. Wham, game over. Yet one cannot help asking: Did he mean it?
That sort of freighted question comes up much more frequently in discussions of Shostakovich’s symphonic legacy. I don’t want to end our Prokofiev talk with it. Certainly audiences in 1945 thought they knew what he meant: the end of the war renewed people’s hope for the future. Prokofiev’s new symphony—the first he had written in nearly fifteen years—expressed that hope within a recognizable existential context. It also happened to be superlative music, which never hurts.
Marin Alsop gets it. Her reading, with the São Paulo SO, comes closer to realizing this great work’s strengths than any performance I’ve heard for a long time. Here it is paired with The Year 1941, a brief three-movement “symphonic suite” written as an earlier response to Russia’s war effort, and widely criticized for being “insufficiently developed” (Shostakovich) or perhaps insufficiently profound (that from the official critics). Well, it would have made good film music. In fact some of it found its way into a film, reminding us just how gifted Prokofiev was as a “visual” composer. Update: Naxos has now released Alsop’s Prokofiev Fifth as a high-resolution Blu-Ray audio disc (NBD0031). This is the version you want. It’s smoother, deeper, punchier, and altogether more alive than the CD or downloads.
Alsop is just beginning her trek through the Prokofiev symphonies, but Vasily Petrenko and his Royal Liverpool forces have been chipping away at the Shostakovich cycle, a much larger and more significant corpus, for some time now. His latest release couples No. 2 “To October” (1927), one of Shostakovich’s earliest works, with No. 15 (1971), his last symphony. The performances are very good, and the recorded sound is possibly even better than that furnished for Alsop. Another reviewer has praised the “punch, presence, and ambience” provided by Petrenko’s engineers, and I heartily second that endorsement. Dip into his previous Shostakovich issues almost anywhere (see list below) and you will discover a consistent combination of musical vitality and profound understanding. These are fine performances, well worth acquiring and savoring.
But let’s start with Nos. 2 and 15, which serve as a decent introduction to Shostakovich’s symphonic output if you have never gone there. Even if you know some Shostakovich—probably the Fifth, perhaps the Ninth or Tenth—you may not have added these to your collection yet. They illustrate two important facets of this composer’s artistic anatomy: (1) the centrality of topical-political-social “message,” and (2) biting wit, satire, and sardonic humor. Shostakovich is often most effective when he juxtaposes these two aspects.
In this regard he somewhat resembles his hero Gustav Mahler. Like Mahler, he sought to create not just movements, but entire worlds. And like Mahler again, that sometimes meant a jarring juxtaposition of the crude and the sublime, the transcendent and the trivial. Shostakovich’s personal experiences magnified the significance of these elements in his music, although they also tended to confine his interests to the topical and parochial: Mahler would never have written a symphony depicting the siege of Leningrad or a cantata celebrating the reforestation of the Steppes.
Shostakovich received extraordinary acclaim as a teenaged symphonist, followed in 1934 by the popular success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. But after that he underwent a horrific baptism-by-fire when the opera incurred the wrath of high-ranking Party members. Stalin himself reportedly attended a performance, came away offended by the story, characters, and music, and saw to it that the composer’s standing in Soviet artistic circles suffered nearly irreparable damage.
For the rest of his life Shostakovich rode a very public see-saw, falling in and out of favor at the whims of the functionaries who controlled artistic life in the Soviet Union. In the West, he came to be seen as (in Robert Layton’s words) “the soulful, sensitive, somewhat neurotic introvert quailing under the whiplash of Zhdanov’s philistine musical philosophy.” In the ‘60s and ‘70s, however, and especially with the publication in 1979 of Testimony, a book purporting to consist of clandestine conversations with the composer, another image began to emerge: that of a valiant protest singer, a man who could cleverly encode even the simplest musical materials with hidden, scathing denunciations of the politicians and bureaucrats who had made his life and that of his fellow Russians so miserable for so long. Even Shostakovich’s most innocuous music apparently carried double meanings, encrypted messages meant only for the ears of those who well and truly understood him.
This “new” Shostakovich dominated many discussions during the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the talk has not yet died down. Nor is it ever likely to be placed in realistic context, for like all good conspiracy theories, every refutation of its mythology can also be taken as proof of the enemy’s capacity for deceit—not to mention further confirmation of the composer’s cleverness at hiding his messages. (We don’t have space here to go into chapter and verse, so I invite those who are interested to pursue the story here.)
Back to No. 2: After the favorable reception of his first symphony, Shostakovich sought to sustain momentum by immediately drafting two more big works, of which No. 2 is by far the more interesting. In March 1926 he received a commission from the Propaganda Division of the State Music Publishers Section to write something commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. He quickly suggested a formal outline for a work to close with a rousing chorus, introduced if possible by a factory hooter. (Back in the day, that must have seemed like a daring Machine-Age touch.) The Division chose an “official” proletarian poet, Alexander Bezïmensky, to provide a text—one which Shostakovich later criticized in withering terms—and the symphony was premiered in Leningrad in November 1927.
Shortly after its first performances this work essentially dropped out of sight. Hearing Petrenko’s ardent new recording, one has to ask why that happened. Did its radical modernism—speaking musically, not politically—make it invisible, once Socialist Realism and the demand for an accessible “people’s music” became the aesthetic law of the land in the 1930s? We forget that Russia remained relatively hospitable and “open” during the 1920s, and that the music of Berg, Hindemith, Stravinsky, and others was played there. In Leningrad, Shostakovich took in a performance of Berg’s expressionist opera Wozzeck and was deeply impressed. Its tragic drowning scene undoubtedly inspired the murky ascending swirl of string counterpoint that opens Symphony No. 2. Listen:
After this, the struggle intensifies, bringing more sharply defined polyphony.
Finally, with the entrance of the workers’ voices, triumph is at hand. “October! It is the herald of a new dawn. October! It is labor, joy, and song.”
In spite of its trite text and official designation as propaganda, this Shostakovich symphony retains considerable power. Writing forty years ago, Layton noted these works’ “brashness, bombast, and vulgarity,” but also their “lofty feelings and sense of spiritual desolation.” All are present in Symphony No. 2, bringing it within hailing distance of Layton’s claim that these symphonies, at their best, share the “epic panoramic sweep of the great Russian novels.”
To be entirely accurate, that would also have to include the dark comedy embedded in so much Russian literature. Two glockenspiel chimes begin Symphony No. 15, and then we hear nimble lines from solo flute and bassoon. It sounds almost Haydnesque. But the music wanders, abruptly changing direction and creating a sense of psychological instability. And then:
Why the Rossini sample? It comes back several times. If you subscribe to the hidden-message school of thought, you will find Andrew Porter’s theory attractive:
Would it be too fanciful to suggest that, whereas William Tell was an active fighter for freedom, a musician—Shostakovich now feels—has the power to make only small, ineffectual gestures?
In other words, is this seemingly trivial, playful insertion a lament, made doubly meaningful by its very triviality?
The work is haunted by other quotations. As it assumes an increasingly bleak outlook, they become more and more significant. In a lengthy Adagio, Shostakovich recalls the Adagio of his own Symphony No. 11, which took the massacre of “Bloody Sunday,” January 9, 1905, as its subject. A mocking scherzo follows in which the composer appears to take his own name (spelled out in music as DSCH, i.e., D-E-flat-C-B) in vain. The work ends in another Adagio, this one twenty minutes long, full of quotation and allusion. First, Wagner: the Fate motif as heard in the “annunciation of death” scene in Act 2 of Die Walküre. We should recall the words Brünnhilde sings then:
Only those destined for death / Can see me; / Whose gaze finds me / Must part from the light of life. / On the field of battle / I appear to noble heroes . . . / I choose, and they must follow me.
Then, the barest possible allusion to the Desire motif from Tristan, an ascending sixth followed by a falling second. Death and Desire have taken the stage. But Shostakovich leads the Desire motif without pause into his own willfully banal, uncertainly shaped melody. This was my life, he tells us. It’s not Wagnerian, not a bit. Listen:
The music eventually progresses to a powerfully voiced passacaglia that may be derived—yet another quotation?—from the “war” theme in the “Leningrad” Symphony. That builds to a relentless, crushing climax, after which the movement ends, slowly, with wistful references to earlier material including the Wagner themes and the composer’s self-referential extension of them, plus the no-longer sprightly flute tune and bell chimes of the first movement. Taken altogether it makes a deeply moving farewell to that most public of all instrumental genres, the symphony. The Romantics saw the symphony as an expression of the whole community. Shostakovich honored that vision with a lifetime’s work. But here he was surely speaking of one life only, his own.
There is much more that could be said. The best thing is to listen. Below, a “starter list” of other important Shostakovich symphonies:
Symphony No. 5. As “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism,” this powerful work rehabilitated Shostakovich’s image with the Party and the Russian public in 1937 and sustained the composer’s reputation through decades of misunderstanding and neglect. Bernstein’s 1959 recording was an international triumph and remains worth hearing; there are many others. Petrenko’s reading (coupled, like Bernstein’s NYP reissue, with No. 9) received unusually mixed reviews but has been staunchly supported by the hidden-message faction. Naxos 8.572167.
Symphony No. 10. Layton regards this as “undoubtedly [Shostakovich’s] masterpiece.” For one thing, the finale is wholly successful, musically well integrated with the rest of the work and avoiding the ambiguity or coarseness of the conclusions he fashioned for some earlier works, including the Fifth. Petrenko is masterful here; Naxos 8.572461.
Symphony No. 8. Petrenko, Naxos 8.572392; Andris Nelsons, C Major Blu-Ray 710004 (see the video clip below). The middle piece in Shostakovich’s trilogy of wartime symphonies. Essentially an anti-war statement, deeply pessimistic. Like Mahler, Shostakovich did not find the classic four-movement symphonic forms always useful, and this work, like several others, begins with a spacious slow movement. Written in 1943, preceded by the “Leningrad” Symphony (1941), now usually dismissed as bombastic and shallow, and followed in 1945 by
Symphony No. 9. Short, light, and humorous. An “anti-Ninth,” not at all what the public or the Party had in mind as a proper celebration of the Russian victory. Banned by the Soviet authorities in 1948, it eventually became one of Shostakovich’s most popular works. Bernstein recorded it twice; besides the CD reissue that couples this with his incandescent Fifth, look for a DVD that includes the underrated Sixth, featuring Lenny and the Vienna Philharmonic at the top of their game.
Featured Image (at the top of this column): Ilya Repin (1844-1930), “17 October 1905.”
In preparing this column I gratefully relied on the work of Robert Layton, in The Symphony 2: Elgar to the Present Day (Penguin, 1967), and that of Michael Steinberg, in The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford, 1995). The most evenhanded, accurate English-language biography of the composer is Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford, 2000).