Opus 43: Symphony No. 4 (1936)

Symphony No. 4, op. 43 (1936)
CD:  Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin (BMG/Melodiya 74321 19840 2)

It seemed to you that he is “frail, fragile, withdrawn, an infinitely direct, pure child.” That is so. But if it were only so, then great art (as with him) would never be obtained. He is exactly what you say he is, plus something else — he is hard, acid, extremely intelligent, strong perhaps, despotic and not altogether good-natured (although cerebrally good-natured).

That is the combination in which he must be seen. And then it may be possible to understand his art to some degree.

In him, there are great contradictions. In him, one quality obliterates the other. It is conflict in the highest degree. It is almost a catastrophe.

So the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko described Shostakovich to a fellow writer in 1941.  Although Zoshchenko could not have heard the composer’s fourth symphony in his lifetime, his characterization has always reminded me of that work:  Written when he was just shy of thirty years old, it is the purest distillation of Shostakovich’s early musical temperament, constructed out of constantly shifting moods and impulses that are, on the surface, contradictory.

The fourth is Shostakovich’s last major work in the boisterous style of his operas and ballets, and the third to be scuttled by official criticism in 1936.  That year, the state’s news organ, Pravda, infamously ran an anonymous review of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk titled “Muddle Instead of Music”, which halted the opera’s extraordinarily successful run of productions within the Soviet Union.  Shortly after that the ballet The Limpid Stream was decried as a “Ballet Falsehood”, applying more pressure on the composer to bring his work into line with ambiguously defined, but by now deeply conservative, official tastes.  Such criticism fits within an older tradition of musical invective but, as the position of Stalin’s government just as the Great Purge was getting underway, it served as a substantial threat against Shostakovich’s career and life.  Yet the composer pushed on with his fourth symphony, every bit as stylistically incorrect as the two explicitly chastened works, and it went into rehearsal with the Leningrad Philharmonic, only to be cancelled before its premiere due to some combination of paranoia, behind-the-scenes official pressure, and actual artistic concern among the conductor, orchestra management, and composer.

The symphony’s manuscript was lost during World War II; decades later, the orchestral parts were found and the work reconstructed.  Kirill Kondrashin finally premiered it with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra late in 1961.  The next year those same forces made the studio recording I refer to here, at one time reissued by BMG.  In 1962 the symphony was first performed in the West at the Edinburgh Festival, directed by Gennady Rozhdestvensky alongside Shostakovich’s then-new twelfth symphony.

The stiff and predictable twelfth must have stood in marked contrast to the fourth:  The earlier symphony is both astonishingly lively and tremendously difficult to comprehend.  I first listened to it on disc when I was 18 or 19 years old and, while it made an impression — it and Lady Macbeth were, for a time, at least what I stated as my favorite of the composer’s works — it took a few years and many repeat listenings before I developed any recall of what the music specifically sounds like.  Even then, that interior sense of the music felt for a long time more like mere familiarity with its landscape than an intuition of its structural logic.  The symphony is roughly an hour long (compared to more recent recordings, Kondrashin’s can sound noticeably speedier, sometimes mercifully so), with two enormous outer movements sandwiching a relatively petite, nine-minute intermezzo.  As mentioned previously, it owes a substantial debt to Gavriil Popov’s earlier first symphony in its overall effect and some of its details — its dramatic pauses; its long, rhapsodic movements; its sheer, brazen gigantism — but Shostakovich’s symphony is also strongly influenced by the sprawling psychodramas of Gustav Mahler, seemingly much more than Popov’s is.  Outside of these formal borrowings, the music sounds a good deal like Shostakovich’s heaviest earlier works, most closely Lady Macbeth and his three ballets — although, despite the symphony’s intensity, it reminds me less of the more thoughtful Golden Age than The Limpid Stream.  That may be because both The Limpid Stream and the symphony use a more conventional orchestra than the earlier ballet’s saxophones and flexatones (although the band for the fourth is monstrously outsized) but, more deeply, the fourth symphony feels in many places like a great, dark built up out of hollow-sounding dance music gestures, as though the composer had dynamited his final ballet and assembled a tragic, Mahlerian symphony out of the shards.

The work opens with the wind-instrument shriek excerpted above, a more acerbic version of the brusque orchestral sneeze that Popov leads with.  This proceeds straight into the first movement’s first main theme, an angular and deliberately unhummable tune, played over a stomping beat:

The movement goes on to introduce a second, more lyrical theme (although it is never treated too lyrically) and develops these in a way that resembles, broadly and abstractly, a traditional first-movement scheme, most clearly in a recognizable return to the opening theme shortly before the movement’s end.  As in the third symphony, though, Shostakovich seems to try to bury the relationship to the older symphonic form, and the effect is that of a constantly forward-moving musical front whose direction, while chaotic, is also seemingly linear.  A couple of prominent setpieces occur within this wash of music — a screamingly fast fugato passage, a cinematic series of ominous crescendos — but I think the scope of expression within the movement is easiest to suggest by flagging a few different appearances of its first theme.  After its aggressive, abrasive first statement (excerpted above) it very recognizably returns about twelve and a half minutes in, transformed with very slight changes into something like a carousel-organ tune:

Four minutes after that it forms the local climax of a threatening passage, in much more distorted form.  The music builds up choppily, only to twist away with a few coarse waltz beats — the mood of danger pivots into one of broad comedy — and then settle into another chugging string accompaniment:

At about the twenty-three-minute mark, near the movement’s end, the theme gets something like a proper recapitulation, this time as a bassoon solo, turning it into a sort of comic monologue:

The first movement, after all its fury, ends in an atmosphere of unsettled quietude, as woodwinds almost motorically repeat short, questioning gestures against a low thrumming background.

The second movement opens in a similar mood; its slightly mysterious first theme unwinds cleanly enough, although the sound quickly thickens.  A descending second theme that first appears to a gently pulsing bass line creates, initially, a mood of twilight calm, though as always it becomes more complex and ambiguous over the course of a few minutes.  The theme is also notable for being reused (with some cleaning up) much more famously in the first movement of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony:

The movement returns to its earlier material at the end, with the addition of an odd, rattling percussion figure, resembling Shostakovich’s music for the mechanical toys in The Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Blockhead.  I hadn’t noticed that possible connection before watching what’s left of that film last November, but the link seems appropriate to the music’s mechanical, alienated mood at the end of the symphony’s second movement, as though it is a mechanical toy winding down:

The final movement, with distinct Largo and Allegro sections that make it function more like two conjoined movements, opens with a funereal tread and a slightly grotesque quality, recalling the third movement of Mahler’s first symphony as well as the funeral-march third movement of Shostakovich’s own Symphony No. 1.  This finally rolls into one of my favorite parts of the work, a gleaming, lurching, weird fanfare:

This settles down and speeds up into the second part of the movement, which takes up most of its twenty-plus minutes.  Until this final movement the symphony has tracked the design of Popov’s pretty closely, in function if not proportion:  Both first movements are sprawling, unruly affairs, both second movements contrastingly lyrical.  Even Shostakovich’s third movement, excepting the opening, seems to ape Popov’s at a high level, as a scherzo that roils over into the symphony’s grand climax.  Shostakovich’s last movement, though, is much larger and much stranger.  After its trudging intro it proceeds as a hard-charging fast movement — then, for several minutes in its center, lays out a baffling, seemingly aimless series of satirical light-music episodes, shot through in places with dark intimations from the low brass:

These quiet down into a bed of warm expectancy, as though a musical resurrection a la Mahler’s second is about to occur, but instead the timpani herald a crashing, unequivocally tragic climax, which lowers finally into a quiet, shell-shocked, minor-key conclusion.

It is the circus element at the movement’s heart that makes it difficult to grasp Shostakovich’s intent, but though it does cause some problems for the work’s momentum on a musical level the dance episodes’ purpose seems finally understandable as the symphony’s most coarsely grained contrast between comedy and tragedy.  To borrow Zoshchenko’s phrase, the one quality almost obliterates the other, yet they make up one larger quality.  What causes our suffering and despair is so often banal and ridiculous; what we laugh at so often seems to be, at root, our own exasperation and helplessness.  This is the continuum, it seems to me, that Shostakovich constantly ranges over, and nowhere else in his output do its two poles generate so much dissonance.

The first time I heard Popov’s first symphony I did feel a twinge of outrage that Shostakovich seemed to have mimicked so much of it — and it remains the case, here and elsewhere, that Shostakovich’s large-scale structures are rarely novel — but in getting to know Popov’s work I’ve since gotten a sense of how the symphonies differ.  Popov’s is the more approachable and charming work, I think, and maybe more successful on its own terms.  But Shostakovich’s fourth is a darker and edgier work, more acidic in its humor and psychologically deeper in its dramatic outbursts.  It commits sins of excess similar to those of Lady Macbeth and The Nose, and threatens in its bulky outer movements not to hang together in a coherent musical form, but it is also a thoughtful work and unmatched in any of Shostakovich’s subsequent output — following the defining low point of his relationship to the Soviet cultural apparatus — for its raw intensity.  It is, as a symphony, almost a catastrophe, but it is also almost a masterpiece.


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6 Responses to “Opus 43: Symphony No. 4 (1936)”

  1. TC Says:

    Thank you for writing this review of the Shostakovich 4th, which I have greatly enjoyed. I have always thought that Shostakovich’s 4th is a veritable masterpiece. It is among the 20th century most distinct symphonies, and to my mind possibly his best . As you rightly noted, It takes many hearings to get familiar with it. Yet the more I heard it, the more stunned I was at his audacity in writing it on the eve of the Stalinist purges. What was he thinking? The first theme of the symphony, an industrial fanfare confirmed by a factory whistle no less, is puffed, mocked and resurrected in a sinister recapitulation, before fading away in sarcastic rendition by the bassoon voice mentioned above. If there was ever a withering, in your face artistic assault on the Stalinist ideals, this is it. The second movement, the haunted and haunting mechanical dance, and third movement, the funeral and circus fare ending on a tragic fade, foreshadowing the darkness to fall. Was the political space at the time not fully shut that he could ponder writing such a piece and have it rehearsed, in Leningrad, the center of dissent and the political storm to come? Was it the collective scream of the Leningrad intelligentsia before being eviscerated by Stalin? To my ears, it is certainly anything but politically naive, and he clearly knew what he was writing. I do think though that he did not realize it was too late until the moment the rehearsals were stopped. That Shostakovich was penetratingly intelligent, acerbically witty, and dark-visioned is all plain to see in this great symphony. It is a miracle he lived to hear it performed 25 years later.

    • Nate Says:

      Thank you (belatedly!) for your comments. “Audacity” is a good word for the symphony, both in style and in context. I don’t hear an explicit anti-Stalinist program in it, or I no longer do; what I hear is an insistence on expressing all the chaos and ridiculousness of life’s tragedies, in Shostakovich’s immediate present but also in general. I do think that depicting the emotional reality of the time functioned as a form of protest, or at least an obstinate rebuttal of the critics who demanded he produce more politically useful art.

      I wonder, too, why Shostakovich and the other musicians who began rehearsing the work thought it would be accepted after Lady MacBeth and The Limpid Stream were shut down. Increasingly the sense I get is that nobody exactly knew what was expected of them — the state released no official guidelines on music composition, after all. It does seem in retrospect that all the clues were there but perhaps Shostakovich didn’t yet realize how bad the political situation had gotten, or thought that the abstraction and loftiness of the symphonic form would protect him from the level of criticism that his programmatic opera and ballet drew. The arm-twisting he got before the symphony was premiered rather than afterwards was apparently a new development, and could have made a difference; or maybe he just hadn’t been bent far enough backward yet to compromise his artistic style. Whatever it was, the miracle to me is that he found a way to write music as expressive and (in some if not all dimensions) as forceful as the 4th in a substantially different, more officially palatable style. Given all the terrible and perfunctory music produced in the Stalinist period (some of it by Shostakovich himself) that hardly seems like an obvious outcome.

  2. Adrien Says:


    I just discovered your blog today, and i really admire your work on Chostakovitch, which is by far the best I’ve read on the internet (as i’m writing on Chostakovitch at http://fp.nightfall.fr (in french), i know how difficult it is). Symphony No. 4 is one of my favourite works of Chostakovitch, i can listen to it endlessly, especially when conducted by Kondrachine. I can’t wait to read you on the Thirteenth Symphony, which is to me his most ambiguous work, a failure with very beautiful moments in it (“Humour”, “Fears” without its conclusion, “A Career”).

    Sorry for my English, that’s the best I could do!

  3. Nate Says:

    Thanks very much! I know Kondrashin mainly through his recordings in the 1960s of the 4th and 13th symphonies, which are excellent: He draws out such an intense, immediate, raw sound, which makes a lot of later recordings sound overly well-behaved by comparison.

    Your English is quite good, although I don’t follow just which parts of the 13th strike you as failures. I do look forward to writing that one up, eventually — based on where I am now and the sluggish rate I’ve been writing at lately, it seems like I may be years away — but it’s one of my favorites, most especially for the “Career” setting.

    Unfortunately I don’t speak any French myself, but I’m doing my best to get the gist of your reviews through Google Translate.

  4. Adrien Says:

    I have the Complete Symphonies by Kondrachine (Melodiya, 2006), and it’s definitely the best conductor for Chostakovitch’s symphonies. Only Haitink and Rojdestvenski can compete.

    As for the 13th, I don’t like the endings of “Babi Yar”, “Fears” and “At the shop”, which are uselessly “grandiose”.
    But “Humour” and “A Career” are among his best symphonical pieces.

    Good luck with Google Translate, i think you’ll get the general meaning.

  5. Charles F. Howard Says:

    After some forty years of listening repeatedly to Shostakovich’s 4th symphony, it remains my single favorite piece of music of any kind. I do not agree with the announcer of a live performance of it by the Cleveland Orchestra, who stepped in seconds after the last stroke of the celesta in the coda, and claimed, “There is no light at the end of this tunnel.”
    In fact, I feel this symphony, and the coda in particular, encompass an apotheotic transcendence over the forces that seek to conquer us.

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