Opus 10: Symphony No. 1 in F Minor (1924-1925)

Symphony no. 1 in F Minor, op. 10 (1924-1925)
CD:  “Shostakovich: Symphonies 1 & 9”, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (London 414 677 – 2)

That’s the beginning of Shostakovich’s first symphony, his first international hit (he was 19) and the first of what would become a monumental body of fifteen symphonies.  It was a joy to listen through this again yesterday, surprisingly so for the experience of listening to recorded music piped from my laptop through my television speakers, probably just because I’ve been holding back from listening to reams of his music while I’ve got Shostakovich on the brain.

This is also the first piece that I know pretty well, going back to when I was sixteen or so, though it must be at least two years since I’ve sat down and listened to the symphony.  Here I listened to the Haitink / London Philharmonic recording that I bought in high school, currently available as part of Decca’s more recent reissue of Haitink’s Shostakovich cycle.  His Shostakovich symphonies are good overall, based on those that I’ve heard, and he directs No. 1 with enough reserve to give it a lightness of touch without losing any energy or diminishing the piece’s key moments of real over-the-top brashness; I prefer it to the other two recordings I know well, Ormandy’s with Philadelphia (too affectless) or Neeme Järvi’s with the Scottish National Orchestra (likable but more heavy-handed).

The introduction excerpted above spins out into a bouncey theme and the first movement gradually stirs itself up.  After a couple of minutes the flute introduces the delicate second theme, a winking dance tune; the movement subsequently plays the two themes back and forth off of each other.  Shostakovich does a nice job of building and maintaining musical tension — for the most part (including at the movement’s end) the buildup doesn’t release so much as settle down, but my favorite moment in the symphony happens at about the halfway point when the music finally lets loose:

The end of that excerpt also suggests some of the symphony’s frenetic, darker edge — the innocuous little tune blows up into a musical cataclysm.

The second movement opens with a gamboling theme; Shostakovich charmingly gives it to the piano in a couple of places, a solo voice that dropped out of his symphonic pallette later.  Here it is around the 3:15 mark — the composer was working as a cinema pianist to help make ends meet while writing the symphony and, in full imaginative fanboy mode, I can’t help but imagine him working through this theme as accompaniment to a silent comedy:

The bulk of the second movement, though, belongs to a more exotic theme given a hazily atmospheric setting, very reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite and (less directly) Stravinsky’s early, folk-influenced works.  That influence is new to Shostakovich’s work but it’s pronounced in the rest of the symphony from this point on.

The third and fourth movements fit together as an abstract dramatic episode.  The third movement mostly works out a single, searching theme in a funereal mood, with drum and bugle gestures periodically rising up out of the fog, and is an obvious forerunner to Shostakovich’s many, later passacaglia slow movements (although I don’t have the ears to tell whether this is formally a passacaglia or not; it sounds freer in structure than that).  The symphony continues into its final movement without pause, via a snare drum roll, and continues in the same tone before introducing its own, tragic main theme.  The tragedy in the finale sounds theatrical rather than intimate — most literally at about the five-minute mark, when the tympani play a sequence of exposed, doomy drumbeats — but it is urgent and earnest.  The last-movement theme, which I clipped below from just before the work’s anxious, minor-key conclusion, has a broad, expressive lyricism of a piece with late-19th-century Russian music but also a rawness and Soviet-modern brashness, like Rimsky-Korsakov with a brushed steel exterior:

It’s a charming sound.  I’ve always listened to the first symphony in the context of the later fourteen so it’s interesting to come at it this way, when it stands out as the culmination of his student works.  Shostakovich uses better musical material here and, besides imitating Prokofiev’s sound, also uses more counterpoint here, or just keeps more musical elements in motion at once.  (Compare the Opus 7 scherzo, which uses a similar theme to the symphony’s second movement but mostly barrels straight ahead with it.)  It all comes together as a solid, characterful, expressive work of music, worthy of its popularity.


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