Shostakovich’s Big Break: A Guide to His Symphony No. 1

Shostakovich’s Big Break: A Guide to His Symphony No. 1

Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony may be the greatest graduation project of all time. Composed at the age of 18, Shostakovich’s First Symphony was written to fulfill the graduation requirements of the Leningrad Conservatory (earning him the equivalent of a college music degree), and would take the international music world by storm the following year. But even more impressive were the enormous obstacles the young composer had to face in the years leading up to this momentous debut.

Shostakovich with a cat, photographed 28th June, 1925, while he was in the midst of putting the finishing touches on his First Symphony.
Shostakovich with a cat, photographed 28th June, 1925.

Shostakovich had been only 10 years old when the February Revolution ended over 400 years of Romanov rule. As a native of St. Petersburg, he witnessed firsthand the transformation of his country from a Tsarist autocracy to a Communist dictatorship between February and October 1917. These earth-shaking events would have powerful ramifications on his work as a composer, but at the time he was just a musically gifted boy eager to develop his talent—and to survive.

He entered the Petrograd Conservatory at age 13 (St. Petersburg became Petrograd in 1914 with the outbreak of WWI—the name “St. Petersburg” was perceived as too German), but was put into a class with much older students on account of his precocious musical abilities. He not only was a gifted pianist, but also possessed a Mozart-like musical mind (he would compose many of his pieces in his head before writing them down).

Life was difficult for the conservatory students, especially as Russia descended into an abyss of famine and civil war. Fuel rationing left the conservatory unheated during the cold Petrograd winters, and one food shortage left Shostakovich with a ration of only two spoons of sugar and half a pound of pork every fortnight, hardly enough for a single meal. In 1921, the director of the conservatory, the composer Alexander Glazunov, submitted a successful petition to the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment for increased rations for this promising pupil, even though Shostakovich’s music was not to his taste. Shostakovich never forgot the older composer’s kindness.

"Lenin at a Rally of Workers," by Isaak Brodsky (1929).
“Lenin at a Rally of Workers,” by Isaak Brodsky (1929).

Then, in 1922, Shostakovich’s father, a bureaucrat in the department of Weights and Measures, perished from pneumonia. His mother had to work to support Shostakovich and his two sisters, and Shostakovich brought in extra money by capitalizing on his remarkable skill as an improviser, working as an accompanist at silent movie theaters (a task he would come to hate—he felt he was made into “a musical machine able to portray at the drop of a hat ‘happy meetings of two loving hearts’”—trite escapist fare that bore little resemblance to the realities of life in Soviet Russia).

Thus, by the time Shostakovich began work on his watershed First Symphony in the autumn of 1924, the composer had been through more than usual for a young man who had just turned 18. Despite the conservatism of his professors at the Petrograd Conservatory (his main teacher was Rimsky-Korsakov’s son-in-law, who seemed determined that music history would not progress beyond about 1905), Shostakovich had already absorbed many of the young century’s musical developments. Meeting with other young musicians who had imported scores from abroad, Shostakovich quickly assimilated the new musical language being developed by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and other composers. While his First Symphony does bear traces of these influences, Shostakovich wielded them into what we today recognize as his unmistakable personal voice. Shostakovich’s style would continue to develop and mature over the course of his long career, but even in this early work his characteristic sense of humor and intensity of expression are already apparent.

The symphony opens with a mischievous duet for trumpet and bassoon, the opposite of the grand, portentous opening that Shostakovich’s teachers might have expected:

The introduction that follows is full of humorous starts and stops, as melodic fragments furtively appear in one set of instruments then another, like a forbidden note passed around a classroom.

A solo clarinet then abruptly begins the first proper theme. While its square, four-bar phrases and simple, pulsing accompaniment seem conventional, its angular shape and strange “wrong-note” harmonies give it an ironic twist. Shostakovich later complained that “At the conservatory, they taught me ‘scheme,’ not ‘form.’…Not a word was uttered about the expressive character of the musical line.” Perhaps the young Shostakovich is having a joke at his teachers’ expense, giving them a theme that technically “follows the rules” but has an expressive character would leave them shaking their heads.

Charlie Chaplin in "The Gold Rush," which came out in 1925, the same year Shostakovich completed his First Symphony. Despite his distaste for accompanying films, Shostakovich always enjoyed Charlie Chaplin's movies.
Charlie Chaplin in “The Gold Rush,” which came out in 1925, the same year Shostakovich completed his First Symphony. Despite his distaste for accompanying films, Shostakovich always enjoyed Charlie Chaplin’s movies.

The theme is then developed, at times following textbook procedures and at others taking unexpected turns. These developments are suddenly abandoned, and right according to schedule, a second contrasting theme appears as dictated by academic models. Introduced by a soft, pizzicato string accompaniment, a solo flute plays this second theme, which has a gentle, waltzing lilt and perhaps more sincerity than the musical jokes we have heard thus far. Hints of Tchaikovskian ballet music are even detectable amid Shostakovich’s unconventional harmonies and metrical games. The theme fades away to a long, low note in the basses, and a solo violin announces the beginning of a more developmental section with material from the introduction.

After several boisterous passages, the first theme seems to reappear, but is abruptly cut short as it is in the wrong key (such false returns had been a classic gag since Haydn). Instead, we hear the themes return backwards: first the graceful waltz, then the cheeky first theme, and last the introduction.

The second movement is a madcap scherzo that intensifies Shostakovich’s ironic comedy. A number of commentators have noted its cartoonish character; with its prominent piano solos, this movement might easily have been inspired by Shostakovich’s work as a film accompanist. Its fleeting melodies fly by at lightning speed, until we reach a quieter, slower, and more ominous middle section. The fast opening music returns gradually, accelerating back to the original tempo with great suspense. The theme from the middle section then returns triple forte in the brass, transformed by the musical whirlwind. The darkly comic attempts of the piano to end the movement form one of Shostakovich’s most witty (and haunting) musical jokes.

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde ends with the deaths of the adulterous lovers.
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde had become a symbol of doomed love.

In the slow third movement, it quickly becomes apparent that the fun and games are over. The movement begins with an extended solo for the oboe, which plays a long, heartfelt melody. The oboe is then answered by an expressive cello solo that strongly recalls the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Could Shostakovich be invoking the age-old trope of using a high solo instrument to represent a woman and a low one to represent a man? Such an interpretation, combined with the references to Wagner’s love story, would give an amorous coloring to this music.

Once the cello solo subsides, menacing, militaristic trumpet fanfares appear softly in the background as the violins take up the oboe melody. The mood darkens, and the solo oboe takes up a new melody whose dotted rhythms recall the style of a march (possibly a funeral march?). After some development, the opening oboe melody returns as a high violin solo. The cello melody does not return; instead, the march reappears in its place, played by a muted solo trumpet. The opening melody plays simultaneously in the low strings, revealing that it and the march are in fact two sides of the same coin (perhaps a reference to the idea of “Liebestod”—”‘love-death”—that dominates Tristan and Isolde). As the movement ends, we hear just a hint of a cello solo as the music fades away amid the soft, ghostly fanfare rhythms, now played by the strings.

Maintaining the dramatic tension, the third movement goes straight into the finale with a snare drum roll that begins imperceptibly, but grows in volume and intensity until the orchestra explodes. The finale then begins with an introduction that has the character of an operatic scene: woodwinds ‘sing’ arioso lines above tense, tremolo strings. The cellos play a yearning motif reminiscent of the previous movement’s Wagnerian theme. After a crescendo, the music catches fire with a fast, incendiary clarinet solo. After some frighteningly intense passages, the music slows for a more lyrical violin solo, but the fiery music soon returns. It builds to a sustained fortissimo climax for full orchestra, which suddenly breaks off. A doom-laden timpani solo based on the fanfare motif from the third movement follows, leading to the return of the lyrical solo violin melody, but this time played by the solo cello. The melodic line grows in intensity, transferred first to the trumpet, then the strings above a pulsing, Tchaikovskian accompaniment, which is cut off at its height by violent fanfares that bring the symphony to its tragic conclusion.

Leopold Stokowski in 1926.
Leopold Stokowski in 1926.

Shostakovich completed the short score of the symphony by May of 1925, just in time to present it to his professors. Despite the symphony’s unconventional elements, the faculty was so impressed that they recommended it for public performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic (Petrograd had become Leningrad the year before). Overjoyed by this exceptional honor, Shostakovich finished the orchestration in the following months. The symphony was given a performance at the conservatory that summer, but had to wait until the following May for the public premiere. This new work caused a sensation, and the image of the 19-year-old, bespectacled composer nervously taking his bows would become a famous in Shostakovich lore.

Somehow, this symphony that began with schoolboy pranks and ended with tragic love destroyed by violence spoke to the Leningrad audience, which had been through so much in the past decade. Within a year, it would be performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Bruno Walter and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski (who would later become the Houston Symphony’s Music Director in the 1950s). Nearly overnight, the teenage Shostakovich had achieved international fame, a fame that would protect him throughout his many dangerous confrontations with the Soviet state in the years to come. The symphony remains one of his most popular works.

Don’t miss Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 at Rice University’s Stude Concert Hall September 28, 30 & October 1. Get tickets and more info here.

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