Spotlight on Shostakovich 6

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Pui Wah Poon

Check out our programme notes, courtesy of multi-talented bass player Pui Wah Poon.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54

  1. Largo
  2. Allegro
  3. Presto

Born fifteen years after Prokofiev, the Russian composer Shostakovich was also destined to became one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. Like Prokofiev, he was admitted to the Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg, subsequently Leningrad) Conservatory aged just thirteen.  In 1925, he composed as his graduation piece from the Conservatory his Symphony No. 1. It was an immediate success and quickly achieved worldwide currency.

After this, Shostakovich openly experimented with avant-garde trends, displaying a comprehensive awareness of what was new in Western music. But this proved too radical for the Soviet authorities which demanded a direct and popular style of music. Avant-garde music and jazz were officially banned in 1932. In 1936, after Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, the state newspaper, Pravda, slated this “bedlam of noise” and both the opera and the still unperformed Symphony No. 4 were withdrawn.

Fearing for himself and his family (many of his friends and relatives had been imprisoned or killed), the composer had to produce a work that would please the authorities without entirely bending to their will. The result was Symphony No. 5, informally subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Practical and Creative Response to Just Criticism” – although its opening sense of protest is far from repentant! It was a phenomenal success and was judged to be exactly what the State wanted.

The success the Fifth put Shostakovich back in good standing – only for him to be denounced again in 1948 (alongside Prokofiev). Most of Shostakovich’s works were banned and he was dismissed from the Conservatory. After this he composed three categories of work: film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works “for the desk drawer”.

From 1960 his health began to deteriorate and he even contemplated suicide. In 1966, he suffered the first of several heart attacks and then a number of falls from which he never fully recovered, and which hastened a preoccupation with death evident in his later string quartets and his Symphony No. 14.

Symphony No. 6 was written in 1939. Unusually, it is comprised of only three movements: the contrast of the expansive, sombre first movement with the two shorter and seemingly light-hearted movements that follow representing the dual nature of the composer’s private suffering and public show of contentment. It is an ironic response to official demands for lightness, cheerfulness and optimism.

The piece opens with a long, dark melody, initially played in unison, that rises slowly then falls away. The longer second wave develops the same foreboding theme and comes to a catastrophic climax announced by a trumpet solo. Then comes a funeral march with the cor anglais sounding the lament over the distant strikes of the timpani. The Largo includes a strange flute solo: a single lost nightingale. The first theme, when it returns, sounds more helpless than ever. The final bars bring back the funeral march and the doom-laden tolling of the timpani and lower strings.

The tiny E-flat clarinet opens the second movement with a capering scherzo. But this cheerful lightness is fleeting. A short string melody brings in a sudden sadness, the bass clarinet with three bassoons start another theme with a more frightening tone, and the first tutti when it arrives sounds dark and grotesque rather than playful. The movement bristles with activity: the tone both light and sinister as the music marches towards the general climax. The recapitulation is brief but the movement never fully regains its earlier cheerfulness and finally it just vanishes away.

The last movement starts with a circus-like gallop. Soviet propaganda wanted people to see only “joy and spring” and so Shostakovich presents us with a quasi-triumphant march-dance. This exuberant finale, a Rossinian romp, remains in high spirits throughout, although occasionally the smile seems forced. Shostakovich thought the finale was so infectious and unthreatening that “even the most fastidious critics won’t have anything to pick at.”

The writer Ian MacDonald puts it perfectly: “If you want light music, you are going to get it – and with vengeance.”

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