It was a few years ago when I attended a Cleveland Orchestra concert which included Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony.  Up to that time, I had been aware of his more popular works, such as his First and Fifth through Seventh Symphonies and his Second Piano Concerto (before it was used in Fantasia 2000).  I was more of a Prokofiev fan back then and knew only peripherally of the environment, political and otherwise, that my two favorite Russian composers had done their best work in.


The program notes on the symphony intrigued me with the background it provided on the history of the work: that it followed closely on the initial success then notorious castigation of Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, that the symphony had been withdrawn and didn’t premiere until a quarter of a century later, and that one of its most notable features was a “double coda” at the end of its equally unusual three-movement structure.  All of this shrank against the reality of the startling, indeed jarring opening of the Fourth Symphony.  While I could recognize Shostakovich’s “chops” in some portions of the opening movement, it was crystalline clear that Dmitri was exploring very new territory with his Opus 43.


The real jaw-dropper, however, was that above-mentioned double coda.  The only warning of its arrival was a repeated kettle drum, rising from mezzo-forte to fortissimo, where it was met by massed brass in a monstrously powerful four-note declaration.  French horns respond only to have the trumpets and trombones reiterate their potent phrase.  The strings are allowed a brief statement of their own before the brass answers with yet another repetition of that same overwhelming, declamatory statement.  Then, without notice, the sound and fury dissolve away into a pianissimo rising and falling half-tone figure in the bassoons, shortly joined by a solitary horn in a melody I recognized from the beginning of the movement.  A flute transposes that line and its fellows sigh.  Strings and woodwinds add their quiet comments here and there until the real magic happens: the celesta.  It repeats a minor key phrase, ending with a high accent note.  First chair trumpet and harp provide last touches as the celesta gives its phrase one last time, ending on that last accent note … a pause … then adds a note a whole step above … and then a last note up a fourth … and the music merges with silence.


Clichés of my reaction to this amazing event are pretty much insufficient to the task, except to say that I was well and truly moved by what I had just heard.  Not just my emotions but my curiosity were stirred, and when the opportunity presented itself, I dug further into Shostakovich’s story.  Michael Tilson Thomas provided considerable background information in his video series: “Keeping Score,” wherein Thomas describes Stalin’s reaction to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth: Pravda’s front-page article, “Muddle, Instead of Music,” and that while literally writing for his life, Shostakovich may have managed to slide a message of his own into his Fifth Symphony, though having to shelve his Fourth.  The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s program, “Beyond the Score” added further valuable data, describing Stalin’s desire to drag Russia into the 20th century and expecting conformity of Soviet artists with his idea of what the people expected of them, and the Great Purge which hung over the heads of Shostakovich and his peers.


The more I have learned about Shostakovich, Stalin, and the Soviet Union of the 1930’s, the more I have been both horrified and astonished, horrified in how they lived, Damoclean sword always hovering over their heads, and astonished in the wonderful quality of what they produced despite those conditions.  The “Beyond the Score” piece on the Shostakovich Fourth asked the question, “Is Music Dangerous?”  If you lived in Stalin’s Russia, the answer was a near-unmodified “Yes.”  Music was dangerous, poetry and prose were dangerous, any art which didn’t conform to Soviet standards could not only be dangerous, but fatal.


Allow me to close by offering up that finale to the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony.  I ask you to listen in the light of this brief summary of the conditions under which it was written, then please share you reaction.




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Replies to This Discussion

The 'proletarian masses' might have liked it if they had heard it. I do.

So this is what music sounds like if the composer is constrained and intimidated by lowly politicians ?

If the politicians asked the question 'Is music dangerous ?' they would consider their own positions and the effect the music might have on the proletariate in a totalitarian state. For example, music might inspire and liberate the individual leading to revolution.

So music can be dangerous to more than just its composer as in this case.

Apparently, the proletarian masses also liked Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk ... at least until Uncle Josef disapproved.

The real chutzpah here I think is in the presumption of the Soviet apparatchiks who presumed to define what "the people" wanted to hear.  My personal suspicion is that they wanted NO ONE to think freely, least of all artists.  From what I learned from the "Beyond the Score" story, Shostakovich wanted to create his own revolution of music, perhaps starting with his Fourth Symphony, only to discover that Stalin could tolerate no revolution other than "THE" revolution, and those who didn't toe the line got sent to the gulags or worse.

Oh, and I should mention: the Shostakovich 4th was written mostly BEFORE Stalin's reaction to Lady Macbeth, the first two movements, anyway.  It was in rehearsal when Shostakovich got a visit from a representative of the Union of Composers ... and subsequently came out to announce, "There will be no symphony."  The 4th remained unplayed from 1936 to 1961.  The FIFTH Symphony was Shostakovich's "response to just criticism" and may more closely reflect the influence of Stalin & Co. on his music ... though Dmitri is still alleged to have slipped a Mickey in anyway!




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