Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Shostakovich: First Symphony

I can't help it. I just don't like Shostakovich.

This is the second time I've tried my hand at a Shosty symphony, after listening to and heartily disliking his Eleventh Symphony.

Unfortunately, I felt no emotional connection to his First Symphony either. The music seems random and arbitrary to me--and to be honest, I even caught myself rolling my eyes at a few of Shosty's musical devices. And as I'll show in the listener notes, it's more film score music than symphony.
Leonard Bernstein and the Chicago Symphony
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 7
Deutsche Grammophone, 1989

Lucky me: I've still got three more of his symphonies left to listen to: his Second, Seventh and Twelfth.

A little historical background before we get to the listener notes: Shostakovich wrote his First Symphony in 1925 at the shockingly young age of 18. It was his graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory.

Audiences loved it. In the words of my Essential Canon of Classical Music, the First Symphony "was an unexpected triumph, and overnight Shostakovich became a hero of Soviet music, lauded as the first illustrious child of the [1917 Russian] Revolution."

Eventually, the Soviets would come to their senses and decide classical music was a petty bourgeois pretension, and the Soviet regime turned on Shostakovich in the 1930s. The composer drifted in and out of favor with his government over the remainder of his life.

Listener notes for Shostakovich's First Symphony:
1) Right from the opening moments of this work, I have misgivings about this symphony and the fact that it sounds like incidental music for a film. As we've seen before, this is a common criticism of Shostakovich's symphonies.

2) Regarding the arbitrariness of this music: the first movement features passages of strangely loud and then strangely soft music that seem to follow each other for shock value rather than any structural or musical reason. It all seems directionless and emotionless.

3) "Buh, buh-buh-buh buhhhh, budup, budup, buh-dahhhhh." I suppose that's the primary melody of the first movement? Yeesh.

4) Cinematic music alert in the second movement: at the 0:58 mark in the second movement, there's a flute duet with a a snare drum, triangle and strings playing in the background. This passage could easily be background music for an episode of the original Star Trek. In fact, I'm thinking specifically of this episode, and the scene when Kirk gets zapped after he falls into the obelisk (view from 4:50-5:07).

5) Interesting to hear the piano appear out of nowhere to play a solo part at the 3:07 mark in the second movement. Unfortunately, that part later devolves into really cheesy movie music from 3:58 until the end of the movement.

6) There is an admittedly fun trumpet part at 3:35 in the second movement. I'll give Shosty credit for that.

7) There's yet another passage in the fourth movement (it runs from the 2:00 minute mark to about the 2:48 mark) that is in my view a perfect example of Shostakovich's movie music. Listen to it and tell me why you don't agree.

8) And finally, as if to prove my case, there's a classic cinematic flourish at 6:30 in the fourth movement: a melodramatic sfrorzando from the entire orchestra, followed by.... solo tympani! If that isn't self-caricaturing music, I don't know what is. Consider me a petty bourgeois listener, but I'm just not sure what the Soviet regime saw in this symphony.

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Angus said...

See if you can find a youtube vid of Bernstein conducting the last mvt of the 6th, or Mravinsky doing the last mvt of the 5th... anyway, Shostakovich is much more fun in his concertos and the prelude and fugues for piano... less Soviet-ness and more music there.

zumaro said...

I am no fan of Shostakovich either, but you are picking the worst of the symphonies to listen to, and about to get worse with the next choices. To give him a fairer go, you need to listen to Symphonies like 5, 8, 10 and 14, which cut some of the empty bombast and crudities, and in concert can be genuinely moving. I particularly like 14 which is really a song cycle on death, but 10 is usually acknowledged to be the best of them.

GMM... said...

Zumaro is right: those are terribly odd Shostakovich choices. 5, 8, 10 & 14 are good suggestions, and I would add the 4th. 8 is probably my favorite. But I greatly prefer the 'private' chamber music to his 'public' symphonies. I am addicted to the string quartets (try the 8th), and the piano quintet.