Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, op. 10

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        Shostakovich is probably the most successful of those who sought to continue to write symphonies in the twentieth century--long after most had abandoned the form for other attractions.  To be sure, others wrote symphonies as well during this time, but generally not with the long-term commitment or at the same high level of quality in a truly contemporary idiom as did Shostakovich.  His artistic life is a case study in the tragic difficulty of being true to one’s own sense of artistic integrity and vision, while balancing that with the practical necessity of having any opportunity to exist at all--both as an artist, or even as a human being--in a oppressive totalitarian society.  Accordingly, his compositions varied in their styles over the decades.  Those of his early maturity were composed under the daily fear of his vanishing in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s; during the “Great Patriotic War” with the Nazi government,  concerns elsewhere allowed artists a bit more latitude in their expressions.  But the clamp down after the war produced understandable, but confusingly coöperative “artistic confessions” of his lack of sufficient sensitivity to collectivist politics.  Thus, his long line of fifteen symphonies is marked by a few embarrassingly “populist” potboilers, as well as by the immortal masterpieces.  Some works, such as the great Symphony No. 7 are a profound response to the conditions in his homeland, specifically, the siege of Leningrad in 1941.  Others, such as Symphony No. 12, a tribute to Lenin, hardly garner any artistic respect today.  But, the complex interface between art and politics is obviously not restricted to the former Soviet Union.   Some may remember that even a beloved American composition like Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, scheduled for performance at Eisenhower’s inauguration concert, was quashed by the political ideologues for Copland’s putative “leftist” leanings.  And so it goes.

        Shostakovich entered the conservatory in Petrograd in 1919, at the age of 13, and his Op. 1, a scherzo for orchestra was completed that fall.  He composed throughout his time there as a student and began work on his Symphony No. 1 in 1924 as a required project for graduation.  Shostakovich’s personal, philosophic and political choices in his tenuous existence as an artist in a deadly totalitarian society find some origin in the events connected with the completion of this first symphony.  As he was laboring with the finale, he was befriended by influential people, including a well-known marshal in the Red Army.  They were executed in the purges of 1937-38, and his close friend and fellow student, Mikhail Kvadri, to whom the symphony was dedicated, perished as early as 1929.  The symphony was given its first performance in 1925 by the Leningrad Philharmonic in a radio broadcast.  It enjoyed an immediate success, and was widely praised, not only in the Soviet Union, but in the West, as well.   Musical luminaries such as Toscanini, Klemperer, and Stokowski performed it in short order.  All in all, it was an auspicious beginning for a young teenager--one who went on to become a major composer of the century, but one whose inner artistic persona continues to be one of music’s major enigmas.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan