Symphony No. 9 in E-Flat Major, op. 70

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            Will the real Dmitri Shostakovich please hold up his hand—or at least the composer of Symphony No. 9?   On no other major recent composer has more ink been spilt attempting to understand what thought processes and motivations reveal the true self than that on Shostakovich.  The evidence is fought over, sifted, and re-sifted to build the case that he was a musically-gifted, but incredibly naïve, tool of the worst instincts of Stalinism.  Or, on the other hand, a musically-gifted, but wondrously deceptive, resident critic of the terrors of Soviet Communism.  Even, something of both.  The jury of experts is still out, and will more than likely remain so, for Shostakovich left a maddeningly ambiguous record of his inner thoughts.  He was capable of writing the most satirical compositions that scathingly excoriated the excesses and flaws of Western Democracies—it is informing to remember that as a young man he spent much time playing the piano in silent movie houses.  And, of course, he is admired for music of dark and profound passion that laments the fundamental tragedies of universal human experience.   It is always tempting for those who enjoy easy freedoms of artistic expression to hold others from other times to a high moral standard and to adjure them to not “sell out” their integrity.  But few major composers have endured such political and artistic oppression as that of Shostakovich. 

            He was a student during the early years of the Soviet regime, and like all artists in that country, enjoyed the relative indifference towards the arts of early communism.   Stylistic prescriptions and proscriptions lay in the future, and he studied the music of an array of traditional and modern composers.  His musical education was broad and firm, and he was free to pursue his artistic interests.  He was generally supportive of the communist regime, and saw no reason to think otherwise.   But, as the world knows, during the late twenties and early thirties, life in the Soviet Union evolved into something much more sinister and challenging.  As Stalin gradually clamped down on every aspect of everyday life, the arts became progressively a tool for social and political indoctrination.   Art was impressed into the service of the state as propaganda, taking in this case the form of what is known as “Socialist Realism.”   Simply put, artists were to glorify the reality of the revolution and its benefit to Soviet citizens.   Cantatas about the arrival of new tractors to the village, or about “Stalin, the great gardener and re-forester,” were to become the norm.           

            What is clear, however, is that many of Shostakovich’s works admirably reflect his times and milieu—the most familiar one, of course, to American audiences is his Symphony No. 7, that is widely interpreted as an indelible portrait of the deep suffering—but ultimate Soviet triumph--of the siege of Leningrad.  Symphony No. 8, following in 1943 was even darker and full of despair (but without the triumph), which fact was unfortunately out of sync with the Red Army’s increasing success on the battlefield.  That certainly didn’t go over well with his critics, which probably accounts for his documented intention of that year to write a big celebratory symphony for the triumph of communism over fascism, replete with vocal soloists and a chorus.  Well, it didn’t happen, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, which was intended to pull out all the stops to celebrate victory, ended up being one of his shortest and lightest—almost Mozartian.  Well, again, Shostakovich miscalculated the tone of his work with the spirit of the times and official expectations of public art.

            The work was given its première in fall 1945.  Although initially praised by the critics, it soon was condemned in both the East and the West for its failure to properly reflect the profound victory of the times.  It is cast in five relatively short movements—the last three of which are played without pause.  The whole symphony doesn’t last long, at all—shorter than some single movements of his previous symphonies.

            Obviously a parody of Haydn and Mozart, the first movement is a playful scamper that is interrupted by an awkward, rude interjection from the trombone (it’s Shostakovich, after all--the master of rough humor and sarcasm).  Apparently, the foolish trombonist believes that it is his duty to announce the second theme (played by the chirping piccolo), which he does in the most exaggerated and redundant way.  You’ll hear it again, for in the best classical fashion, the short exposition is repeated.  The development then begins with a dense, somewhat darker passage in the strings, and takes on a rather sinister Cossack gallop.  But the recap comes quickly, and we again hear the happy beginning.   Naturally, the second theme is nigh, but not nearly as soon as our presumptuous trombonist thinks, for he keeps jumping in to announce it, but way too early—and in the wrong key, for goodness’ sake.  After six false starts from the trombonist, on the seventh time he gets it right and the second theme enters (this time in the solo violin).  And this little neo-classic jaunt is over very quickly.

            The second movement opens with a meditative—almost plaintive--solo clarinet, accompanied only by pizzicato bass line.  The soloist is soon joined by a second clarinet, and then by the rest of the woodwinds.   The mood is distinctively in contrast with the “whistling in the dark” optimism of the first movement, and much more aptly reflective of dark times—even in victory.  This whole passage ultimately dissolves into an even more sinister waltz, begun by the strings.  The waltz plods wearily along until it just fizzles out, the piccolo having the last say.

            The last three movements are played without a break, but are nevertheless each distinctive.  The first of them is a brilliant scherzo, begun with a scintillating passage in the woodwinds, quickly joined by all. The movement’s second idea features the brass, led by a trumpet solo.  But, unlike most symphonic scherzi, this whole movement, rather like the previous one, quickly just fades away to an ominous ambiguity.  The penultimate movement ensues immediately with an unexpected stentorian blast in the tuba and trombones, seeming to invoke the doom laden low brass of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. A solo bassoon has the temerity to answer with a kind of recitative that some opine is a sly reference to Beethoven’s 9th.   The brass persists, and then so does the quiet, modest bassoon. After an extended solo, the bassoon segues right into the last movement.  It all starts innocuously as a jaunty little walk, but gradually grows into a tripping jog, quickly picking up steam.  It grows in intensity, volume, and tempo, and we’re soon in the midst of a grotesque, hobnail-booted march (is this, too, a thinly-veiled comment?).  A manic galop drives mercilessly to a quick, smashing end.

            So what does it all mean?  A cheerful salute to Haydn; a gloomy little interlude; an ambiguous contest between heavyweight brass and a thoughtful bassoonist; an ominous waltz; and finally, a dance hall galop—all a most curious celebration of the end of the cataclysmic world war.  It’s a fool’s errand to decipher the thoughts of this brilliant, complex composer, caught in lifelong existential struggle with the worst of totalitarianism.  Better to simply listen and appreciate his art.

--Wm. E. Runyan      

© 2015 William E. Runyan