Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is one of his least popular/least played symphonies. But at the same time it is one of the first works in his mature style, and one of his most personal. It has the marked dissonances of his early style, but the depth and seriousness of his later works. Also at the same time, it is a frightening and disturbing work; one that is not easily understood even after repeated listens. I’ve been trying to crack this nut as best I can by listening to it in my car as often as possible for the last couple of weeks, but still, it’s not an easy work.
One of the reasons it isn’t played terribly often, other than the disturbing music, is the size of the orchestra. It is, by far, the largest Shostakovich called for, with 2 piccolos, 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 6 clarinets, 8 horns, and a rather large battery of percussion, including, but not limited to, woodblock, 6 timpani, and castanets. This somewhat foreshadows the large percussion sections of his last 2 symphonies.
It’s story is one of the most interesting in Shostakovich’s oeuvre. It was started in September 1935. When he was close to finishing the work, the Pravda attack came out, the whole “Muddle not music” thing. In spite of this, he finished the work and planned to have it premiered. During the rehearsal’s Shostakovich withdrew it. The exact reasons, no one knows. The rehearsals were going very badly. And also think of what Joe Stalin might think of the new dissonant work. Many moons later, in December 1961, it was first played.
This is Shostakovich’s first significant work he wrote after he discovered Mahler. His influence isn’t always present, but the scope of the work is very Mahlerian. The first movement is one his longest, only eclipsed by the openers of symphonies 7 and 8 (coincidentally, these three, 4,7, and 8, are all in C). Generally most opening movements are in some kind of sonata form. Mahler stretched the form to it’s seeming breaking point. In Symphony 4, Shostakovich broke it. There is something that could be called a exposition, there is a sort of recap. but it’s all fragmented. The music is more rhapsodic and episodic than symphonic. After a wild dissonant opening, the trombones and trumpets get the opening melody. The trombones really get to rock in this symphony, unlike in any other Shostakovich symphony, with a few solos, and a lot of great parts, most of them in the last movement. The music just flows from one idea to the next, with every once and a while a familiar idea pops it’s head in. I think one of the iconic parts of the opening movement is the wild frantic string passage about 1/2 way trough. To me, it sounds like madness, insanity ect. This is one strange trip through the mind of Dmitri. There are several short climaxes that just scream and then disappear. The music is nothing if not interesting, but man is it confusing, and scary. In the recap-ish, section, instead of having the opening melody come back, a melody that sounds almost identical to one in the 5th symphony. Did Shostakovich recycle music from his unplayed symphony? Probably.
The 2nd movement is the odd one of the three in the sense that it is one 9 minutes compared to the monolithic outer movements. It would fill the scherzo role of the traditional symphonic structure, but scherzo – trio – scherzo it is not. Not nearly as disturbing as the other movements, it perhaps makes for the easiest listening. It, again, has some great trombone lines. It ends with a very original “ticking” passage in snare drum, woodblock and castanet.
The final movement opens with a slow funeral march like section. Hmmm, I wonder who wrote funeral marches into symphonies…Mahler is very present here, with the dotted rhythms in the bassoon and oboe. It’s very spooky and mysterious. After a climax, the music moves into a frantic allegro section, which by the way, has some awesome trombone stuff. Call me crazy, but at one point the music sounds downright festive. It only lasts for a few moments, but it’s hard not to think festive with glock. especially knowing Jupiter from the Planets. Eventually it quiets down, but then the whole orchestra bursts out with some big chords, the first consonant, but each following one more and more dissonant. The music ends very quietly in the minor with some spooky celeste, kind of like the end of the first movement of the 5th.
In conclusion, give the symphony a try, and keep trying. Ultimately you will be rewarded.