Shostakovich’s symphony cycle might be the best known and, in my opinion, the best 20th century symphony cycle (Recognition to Sibelius and Vaughn Williams). As with all symphony cycles there are high points and low points. Being the Shostakovich nerd I am, there are three symphonies of his that I think are really great, but haven’t gained the appreciation that I feel they deserve. I’ll admit there are some of his symphonies that are sub-par (2,3,12), but most of them are brilliant, seriously. It’s time to move beyond 1,5, 7 and 10.
Symphony No. 6 in B minor
This one is similar to Beethoven’s 4th, only in the sense that it stands between two amazing and popular works (Beethoven 4 is wicked good. I have the George Szell/Cleveland recording, and man it rocks). This symphony may also be one of the more enigmatic works Shostakovich wrote. It begins with a long slow movement that takes up half of the symphony’s running time. Like Bach and other composers, Shostakovich differentiates between slow movements that open works, and other slow movements. The opener is very elegiac and dark. Shostakovich once said that each of his symphonies was like a tombstone, and this opener would confirm that. The scherzo is hard to figure out, with many sudden mood changes, but it really grabs you, and ends with the classic chromatic run in the winds. The finale was the most successful movement, and was encored at the premier. Dmitri called it a circus-gallop, and it would not be to out of place in one of his light works. The ending is so over the top joyous it’s downright unsettling considering where the work started. Usually there is the progression from light to dark, minor to major, but the trip covers such a wide spectrum it makes one wonder how legit the celebration is in the finale. Sound familiar? If not, I refer you to every other Shostakovich symphony finale.
Symphony No. 11 in G minor “The Year 1905”
This is the only high quality work from Shostakovich’s four patriotic symphonies, the others being 2, 3 (both of which Shostakovich later admitted weren’t his finest creations) and 12. The work has been called by many a film score without the film. The music is highly dramatic and evokes images of the 1905 revolution. There is a debate over if the work was actually about the 1905 revolution or the more recent 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Unlike the 1917 revolution, the 1905 rev. hadn’t been politicized by the party, so it still some romantic allure, and that was the case with many people of Shostakovich’s generation, but did the recent crushing of a rebellion perhaps have some influence on the work? Probably. In the work Dmitri quotes nine revolutionary songs, and these tunes provide the musical foundation the work lies on. Shostakovich called this work his most Mussorgskian symphony, meaning that he felt this work was for and about the people. The opening movement draws the listener to a snowy winter morning in the palace square, with all the strings playing the same parts over a span of five octaves, and hushed trumpet calls. One of -the over-arching themes of the work is the question major or minor. The timpani is the first to ask. The second movement is wild, depicting the bustle of people in the square, and the eventual crushing of the uprising by the guards. The third movement is a haunting tribute to those who died, starting painfully quiet with about 5 minutes of plucked strings and viola, before building to a repeat of the climax of the second movement. The finale reminds me of the finale of the 5th in overall form, starting with an up tempo folk song with lots of dotted rhythms, before slowing down. The slow section has a wonderful English Horn solo, which gets up into the high register. The last few bars leave us still asking major or minor as the chimes fade.
Symphony No. 15 in A major
This was the last symphony Dmitri was to complete. Perhaps the most notable thing about the work is the quotations, most notably the William Tell overture in the first movement, and also several ideas from the Ring. He also alludes to the invasion theme from the 7th symphony, and the ending of his 4th in the last movement. Shostakovich deceptively called the first movement “a toy shop.” The bells and the quirky “Am I in Ab or A?” flute melody, along with the galloping William Tell might back that statement up, but the rest of the movement might not agree. The second movement is very dark, perhaps a look back on all those who died. I think Shostakovich knew this would be his last symphonic statement, and that colored the work. The cello several lyrical 12-tone solos, getting into the way-way high register, similar to the cello solos in the 1st Symphony. The scherzo flowing attaca is the shortest movement, and full of dark humor and bits of sarcasm, which is how Shostakovich made his name nearly 50 years previously. The finale is a passacaglia, a form Dmitri used a few times in his life (the only other symphonic treatment was the 4th movement in the 8th). The main theme is very much like the invasion theme of the 7th. The coda has the strings on a unison A, while the percussion gets a moment in the spotlight. The timpani plays the invasion theme, the flute plays the quirky motif that opened the work. After a bit everything stops, and the strings hold the A. Are we in major or minor? The question is answered by the bells, playing a C#, thus ending Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies.