Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shostakovich - Symphony No. 6

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975) was a Russian composer best known for his symphonies. He wrote his first symphony as a student when he was 19 in 1926.  Famous conductors Bruno Walter and Leopold Stokowski both thought the first symphony a work of genius and they conducted it in Berlin and the United States respectively.

Shostakovich had many influences early on, most notably Prokofiev and Stravinsky.  He went through a phase of experimental music which made his 2nd and 3rd symphonies not as popular as his first symphony. He eventually was denounced in 1936 in the soviet newspaper Pravda and after Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District (which had premiered in 1934 and was a great success) another newspaper article appeared that condemned the opera for being formalist, coarse, primitive and vulgar.  It was thought that Stalin ordered the article be written, and after it was, Shostakovich's commissions fell along with his income. Critics and officials that had previously praised the opera had to openly change their opinion, for Shostakovich was now a marked man at a time when that meant 'liquidation'.

The story of how Shostakovich managed to live through this denunciation and another later on is not really clear.  But he did change his style and with his 5th symphony he was returned to minimal favor, although things remained shaky for him the rest of his life.

The 6th Symphony was written two years after the 5th,  in 1939 and was first performed the same year.  Shostakovich had originally told officials that his sixth was going to be a huge symphony that was in tribute to Lenin. whether Shostakovich told them that to keep them off his back, or he changed his mind, we don't know for the reality of the symphony was quite different. The symphony has three movements and breaks with tradition because the first movement is a long, slow movement instead of the usual quickly paced first movements of symphonies. The first movement lasts longer than the other two combined, with hardly a break from the melancholy, brooding mood of the movement.  The 2nd movement is lighter in mood, and with the 3rd comes what amounts to a musical carnival compared to the first movement. The 3rd movement begins with the violins playing the 'Shostakovich rhythm', two short notes and a long note that Shostakovich used many times in his works.

The music of Shostakovich is by its very nature somewhat of a political statement. Whether within it is hidden his true feelings for the oppression he felt under Stalin, or whether he honestly praised communism in some of them is still being discussed by musicians. Suffice to say, Shostakovich's music can be very powerful,  well-constructed, and sometimes too repetitious, too loud and too long. His method of composition did not entail a lot of rewriting. He worked on something until it was finished and then went on with the next composition. But there is much in his music to admire. Like all humans, he had his weak points. The music he wrote was full of his humanness, and that makes it more than worthwhile to listen to and study.

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