Shostakovich: Symphony No.4

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No.4 in C minor, op. 43

1. Allegretto poco moderato
2. Moderato con moto
3. Largo-Allegro

On December 1st 1934, Leonid Nikolayev fired a bullet at point blank range into the head of Sergey Kirov, the second most important man in Russia, and the Great Terror, an experiment in the systematic terrorising of an entire population which has few parallels in all the atrocities of the twentieth century, began. Nikolayev was a dupe, a man with a grudge chosen to carry out the murder of Kirov at the behest of the most important man in Russia, Josef Stalin. Stalin's five-year plan to collectivise Soviet agriculture was more or less complete, and had resulted in the deaths of some 15 million peasants and food shortages throughout the Soviet Union. This all went largely unnoticed in the cities (although rumours circulated), but some members of the Party were less inclined to ignore what was happening. Stalin's solution was to engineer the death of the Party and its replacement with a new, more compliant leadership. The investigation into the death of Kirov eventually implicated, and removed, anyone whom Stalin saw as a threat or rival. It was decreed that the number of subversives in Russia was 5 per cent of the population, and the only way the police could come close to the number of prosecutions needed to meet this figure was to arrest people more or less at random. Merely being seen not to smile in public could be taken as a sign of dissent, and as failure to report dissident behaviour was in itself a crime, all acquaintances were to be treated with suspicion - even immediate family. By 1938 one in ten adults in the Soviet Union would have "disappeared" to the Gulag. This combined with a fascistic glorification of the leader on a surreally obscene scale, to produce a kind of collective schizophrenia in Russia; as Solzhenitsyn described it, "black marias at night and demonstrations by day."

Meanwhile, Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, premiered in 1934, was an international success and had established him as the foremost composer in the Soviet Union.He was in a powerful enough position to stand up and express his own opinions at Composers' Union meetings and had on several occasions defended fellow composers whose work had come under attack. This changed overnight on January 26th 1936, when Stalin attended a performance of Lady Macbeth. Two days later an article appeared in Pravda headlined "Muddle Instead of Music", which layed into the opera and warned that if the composer did not address the issues at hand, things might "end badly." It was not signed but was clearly the work of Stalin himself. Within two weeks a second article appeared, attacking Shostakovich's ballet The Limpid Stream. To be attacked twice in the official organ of the Communist Party within the space of a fortnight seemed tantamount to a death sentence.

Stalin's taste in music was conservative, so it is hardly surprising that he would have been offended by Lady Macbeth's lurid tale of sex and murder. It has been suggested that he saw in the character of the police chief a parody of himself. But the real reason for the attack is probably not much to do with the work itself. Western Scholars have turned themselves upside down in their attempts to rationalise the doctrine of "Socialist Realism", but it was in truth a chimera; the term, and its opposite "Formalism" in reality meant nothing more than whatever was or was not useful to the state at any given moment. It was entirely possible to begin a piece that was perfectly in accord with party ideology, only to find that it was opposed to party ideology by the time it was completed. This left individuals in a state of permanent fear, as nothing could guarantee that they would not be found guilty of something. This is reflected in the attack on The Limpid Stream, a work which in contrast to Lady Macbeth is a piece of hackwork, as simple and banally melodic as the opera is complex and dissonant. The composer could not win; Stalin's drive to suppress independent thought in the arts had run ahead in literature; it was now time to step the campaign up into the world of music, and Shostakovich was simply a convenient target.

From the most feted composer in Russia to an enemy of the people in the space of a day was the most disastrous reversal of fortune imaginable. Shostakovich took to keeping a packed suitcase by his front door in anticipation of the arrival of the NKVD (the precursor of the KGB) to take him away. But the visit never came. Why is not clear, but there are several possibilities. While Stalin probably knew little or nothing of Shostakovich's concert music before he attended the opera, as a dedicated film buff he would certainly have recognised the composer's name from his work writing film scores, and it is quite possible that it was this that saved him, as this showed his usefulness to the regime. Possibly Stalin decided to step back after his spies gave him reports suggesting that in the wake of the attacks Shostakovich was suicidal. The suicide of the writer Myakovsky in 1930 had been an embarrassment for the dictator, and another prominent self-inflicted death was to be avoided. Then there was Stalin's superstitious nature: "He thinks all poet are shamans who'll put a spell on him", commented the poet Osip Mandelstam to his wife, and when Mandelstam was himself arrested, he received only three years exile, whereas journalists were casually disposed of in great numbers. This superstition informs another theory: that Stalin had decided to allow Shostakovich to act as his yurodivy, the "holy fool" of Russian tradition depicted by Pushkin in Boris Godunov, and embodied in Pushkin's relationship with Tsar Nicholas I. Or he may simply have been intrigued to see what Shostakovich would do next.

Whatever the case, arrest and disappearance was a very present danger, and the next thing Shostakovich did was going to have at least to appear to conform. The trouble was that that next thing was the Fourth Symphony, which was certainly not contrite. The symphony was put into rehearsal, but things did not go well; the conductor was understandably nervous at being given the dubious honour of premiering a work by an enemy of the people, and tension filled the atmosphere. Finally, Shostakovich made the decision to withdraw the work, citing dissatisfaction with the finale. The required sacrifice had been made, and the composer kept his head down and wrote film music. By 1937 the atmosphere had changed, and although his Fifth Symphony was clearly tragic and pessimistic, the politics of the moment declared it a great success of Socialist Realism. Meanwhile, the manuscript of the Fourth was lost during the war, and when asked about it, the composer would mutter vague comments about the finale being unsatisfactory, and that the work suffered from "grandiosomania".

By the late 50s, the Soviet Union under Krushchev was undergoing a limited thaw, and the rediscovery of the orchestral parts prepared for the aborted performance in 1936 raised the possibility that the work might finally be heard. After all the talk of the work's failings, Shostakovich made no changes whatsoever (in contrast to his extensive reworking of Lady Macbeth), even rejecting the cuts suggested by the conductor Kiril Kondrashin, and so in 1961 the Fourth was finally performed exactly as the composer had conceived it.

Stylistically, the symphony owes an obvious debt to Mahler, in its epic scale and its juxtaposing of intense emotion with parody and irony, while its structure owes more to novelistic or cinematic models than conventional symphonic forms. The orchestra is vast, excessive by any conventional view, but the effect of physical assault that results is clearly intentional, and becomes a point in itself. Rather than being a work that suffers from "grandiosomania", it is a work about it.

The huge opening movement seems a vivid depiction of the schizophrenic nature of life in mid-30s Russia, the shrill bombast of daytime demonstrations contrasted with nocturnal paranoia, sleeplessness and the wait for boot steps coming up the stairs, or escape into oblivion through the bottle, while the short middle movement presents a deconstruction of classical forms, its allusion to the movement of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony based on a song about St. Anthony preaching to the fish maybe providing a clue to the satirical target Shostakovich has in mind.

The finale, as vast as the first, is also the most unorthodox, and divides into four parts: a funeral march, dripping with irony; then an increasingly panic-stricken sequence that ties itself in constructivist knots, as though desperately trying to escape a labyrinth. The next sequence is the strangest: a kind of satirical divertimento that brings to mind Stravinsky's Petrushka and Jeux de Cartes. The impression given is of a group of characters (most prominently a pompous, loquacious bassoon, and a boorish, possibly drunken trombone) giving speeches, periodically interrupted by applause from the violins and animated discussion within the orchestra. Who these characters are is a mystery - there is an air of the circus, or maybe the Rayok, the pre-revolutionary fairground shows of which Petrushka is a descendant - but it may not be irrelevant that this movement was being planned at the point when the attacks by Pravada and subsequent condemnation by the Composers' Union came. As they fade away into the distance, we are suddenly catapulted back into the harsh daylight of the opening, for a peroration that paraphrases a chorus from Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex: "Gloria! Laudibus regina Jocasta in pestilentibus Thebis!" [Gloria! We hail Queen Jocasta in pestilent Thebes!]. A long coda fades slowly into blackness, lit only by the embers of an impotent rage.

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