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Tag Archives: Russian Composer

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

It was from this perch in sunny Hollywood that Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto in 1945.  In it, he distilled American jazz through his own compositional lens.  The score (untouched since its first edition in 1946) has this to say about its origin and inspiration:

Ebony Concerto was written by Igor Stravinsky for Woody Herman and his Orchestra.  It was introduced by that orchestra in a memorable concerto at Carnegie Hall, New York, on March 25, 1946, to the acclaim of public and critics alike.

Igor Stravinsky is one of the greatest and most representative figures in modern-day music.  His music has shocked, delighted, amazed, and irritated, but never bored people.  Stravinsky’s revolutionary musical precepts, his constant search for the new, for the true mirror of our changing world, find expression in music that is based on sound musicianship and great genius.  That is why his Firebird SuiteRite of Spring, and Petrouchka, to name only a few of his major works, are modern classics.

That is why Stravinsky was so impressed by the Woody Herman Orchestra and by their recordings of Bijou, Goosey Gander, and Caldonia.  His creativeness, invention, and deep sense of the modern, matched the characteristics of the Herman Orchestra.  A few months after Stravinsky had met Woody Herman, he presented the popular bandleader with Ebony Concerto… a composition that marks an epochal collaboration between the “jazz” and the “modern” schools of thought.

In truth, this origin story is somewhat romanticized.  Another account (see the Chicago Tribune link below) has it that a member of Herman’s band boasted of a meeting with Stravinsky which never actually happened, leading their mutual publisher to arrange the commission for the cash-strapped composer.  Regardless, Stravinsky did possess enough affinity for jazz that he did not hesitate in completing the project.

Listen to the original recording, and notice the delicious clash of styles happening:

Now listen to another recording that Stravinsky conducted, this time with Benny Goodman as the soloist:

The astute listener in possession of a score will have noticed that in both recordings, Stravinsky does not take his own printed tempos.  The interpretations on these recordings have now become standard.

The tunes mentioned in the program notes give great context to what inspired Stravinsky.  Here is Bijou:

And here is Caldonia:

For further reading on the Ebony Concerto, visit the Center for Jazz Arts, the Chicago Tribune, New York City Ballet, and Boosey & Hawkes.  Get a partial look at the score here.

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

Shortly after Claude Debussy died in 1918, Stravinsky began sketching a piece in his honor.  He called it Symphonies of Wind Instruments, yet it was not a typical symphony.  Instead, Stravinsky meant the term in the more ancient sense of a group of instruments sounding together.  He thus constructed the piece in one movement as a disjunct procession of these varied instrumental groupings.  It first appeared publicly as a fragment from the end of the piece in piano reduction in the Parisian publication La Revue musicale, part of an issue dedicated to Debussy’s memory, in 1920.  The complete version was premiered under Serge Koussevitzky that same year, but gave Stravinsky little satisfaction in performance: he said that “Koussevitzky executed the work, in firing-squad fashion.”   It lay unpublished and largely unperformed until Stravinsky fled Europe and moved to Hollywood.  There, he substantially revised the piece between 1945 and 1947.  This revised version, which retains the dedication to Debussy’s memory, is the most often performed today.

The defining feature of Symphonies of Wind Instruments is Stravinsky’s use of the various instruments to create distinct symphonies of sound.  These groups often contrast and rarely overlap.  Tempo is another important factor in the piece.  Stravinsky uses three main tempos (essentially quarter note = 72, 108, and 144), always maintaining the eighth-note pulse within each one when using mixed meters.  These often change abruptly, but they are related by the ratio 2:3:4, and so easily performable exactly as Stravinsky asks.  Both the instrumentation blocks and the tempo sections usually end abruptly and without transition, creating a block form that is typical of Stravinsky’s broader output.  The general form of the piece has flummoxed analysts for nearly a century, with no two scholars able to agree on an exact formal plan.  The changes in orchestration and tempo, though, provide clues.  The piece is in two main sections, divided at rehearsal 42 (the first fermata).  Before that, Stravinsky introduces six different musical blocks and three types of transitions that are shuffled around and stated in various orders, never overlapping save for a broader transitional section at rehearsal 11.  After 42, only two of those blocks and a new transition type get any treatment, with the final chorale-like block occupying most of the second half.  Thus, Symphonies of Wind Instruments makes an overall move from activity and variety to stasis and sameness.  In the process, Stravinsky uses at least 37 different combinations of instruments.

The Netherlands Wind Ensemble plays the 1947 revision of the Symphonies in a very well-conceived video presentation.  Like the piece itself, the video focuses only on certain musicians at any given time:

Symphonies of Wind Instruments has inspired much scholarship, but little agreement.  Analyses have been attempted by Edward Cone, Thomas Tyra, Robert Wason, Jonathan Kramer, Jeremy Matthews, Alexander Rehding, and many others.  Less scholarly accounts of the piece can be found at Wikipedia, Boosey & Hawkes, the Kennedy Center (which did not check all of its facts!), the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, and the LA Philharmonic.  For a conductor’s perspective, read about David Vickerman’s quest to find the perfect tempos on a recording.  These are just a handful of the dozens of internet articles about the piece, so go explore!

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a nationalist Russian composer and master orchestrator famous for symphonic works like Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol.  He was born into a family with a history of military service in which he eventually followed.  He started piano lessons at age 6 and composition at 10. Around the time of his graduation from military school, he met Mily Balakirev, who introduced him to fellow young composers César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky, heightening Rimsky-Korsakov’s interest in a composition career.  Eventually, with the addition of Alexander Borodin, these composers would call themselves The Five and advocate for a specifically Russian approach to composition.  Later in his career, Rimsky-Korsakov became the Inspector of Bands for the Russian Navy as well as a professor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which now bears his name.

Procession of the Nobles (Cortége) was written in 1889 as part of the opera-ballet Mlada.  Although it was originally begun in 1872 as a collaborative effort with three other composers, the initial project fell through.  Rimsky-Korsakov completed it himself  nearly 20 years later.  I defer now to Eric Bromberger’s excellent program note for the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada, first produced in 1892, almost defies the effort to describe it. In form it is half-opera and half-ballet, and its libretto is unbelievably complex, even by the standards of opera librettos. Set a thousand years ago in an imaginary kingdom called Retra on the shores of the Baltic, Mlada tries to fuse Wagnerian opera with ancient Russian legend, and the result is an absolutely fantastic story. Princess Mlada, a role that is danced rather than sung, has been murdered by her rival Voyslava, who sets out to secure the love of Yaromir, Mlada’s lover. The story involves magic, evil spirits, and trips into the underworld, and at the climax an entire village is submerged by an overflowing lake and Yaromir and Mlada are seen ascending on a rainbow.

Mlada has not held the stage, and the only familiar music from it is the Procession of the Nobles, the orchestral introduction to Act II, which begins with a festival of tradespeople. The music bursts to life with a rousing brass flourish, soon followed by the processional music, a noble tune for strings in E-flat major. This is music of color and energy, and in the opera it is punctuated by shouts from the crowd at the festival. A central section just as vigorous as the opening leads to a return of the march tune and a rousing close.

Rimsky-Korsakov made an orchestral suite from the opera, of which Procession of the Nobles is the final movement.  You can see the full score here.  Also, there is another great program note from the University of Wisconsin bands.

Here is the standard band transcription, arranged by Erik Leidzen:

And now the original orchestral version:

There is also a very nice version for young band arranged by Jay Bocook:

Want to read a biography of Rimsky-Korsakov on the Internet?  You have a lot of options!  Try Wikipedia, allmusic, ClassicalNet, and Encyclopedia Britannica.  Also check out his collected works on IMSLP.

I conducted this at my very first concert with the Columbia University Wind Ensemble in 2002.  It was then conducted by Ena Shin at our joint concerts with the Yale Concert Band in 2007.  This summer (2013) Bill Tonissen will conduct it with the Columbia Summer Winds.

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

Stravinsky wrote the Octet (he also called it the Octuor) in 1922.  He conducted its premiere in Paris the following year. Its instrumentation is unusual, with 1 flute, 1 clarinet, and 2 each of bassoons, trumpets, and trombones.  About this, Stravinsky said: “The Octet began with a dream, in which I saw myself in a small room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some attractive music . . . I awoke from this little concert in a state of great delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose.”  With its use of older forms like sonata and theme and variations, it marked the beginning of his Neoclassical phase, which was to last for most of the next three decades. Coming after intensely rhythmic and primitivist works like The Rite of Spring, the Octet sounds like a mockery of classical forms.  The first movement opens with an adagio introduction typical of classical sonata form, but utterly different in its melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic conceptions.  The sonata begins in earnest with a clear, allegro thematic statement.  It unfolds in typical sonata fashion: exposition, development, recapitulation.  The exact moment of recapitulation is hard to place: Stravinsky not only mirrors the restatement of his themes in the 2nd half of the movement, he also deceives the listener by stating only part of the primary theme toward the end, before finally giving the theme one last full airing at the very end of the movement.  The second movement is a fairly straightforward theme and variations.  It segues directly to the third, a rondo of sorts that is based on a Russian dance rhythm.

Here is but one performance:

For another perspective, listen to this recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1947 at Tanglewood.  Also, take a look at Bernstein’s markings in the score (of a later edition), via the New York Philharmonic archives.

Musicians love to talk about the Octet.  It has its own, extensive Wikipedia article, complete with a history and a formal analysis of each movement.  It was the subject of a doctoral dissertation at the University of North Texas in 2007, dealing specifically with the trumpet parts.  It is featured on the Wind Repertory Project.  This Boosey & Hawkes blurb has some great contemporary quotes on the piece (one of which I used above).  Stravinsky himself wrote an essay about it for the premiere, which he published in 1924.  This other essay refers to that.  Since the Octet has such legendarily fun bassoon parts (my favorite bit is the cascade in the 2nd movement, although the beginning of the 3rd also gets me every time), it’s only fitting that the principal bassoonist of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra would write a fantastic and detailed blog post about her experience with the piece.  Finally, it has a place in the Classical Archives.

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.

Born on April 23, 1891 in Sontsovka, Ukraine of the former Russian Empire, Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev is considered one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He was also an accomplished pianist and conductor. He attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1904 to 1914, winning the Anton Rubinstein prize for best student pianist when he graduated. Like other great composers he mastered a wide range of musical genres, including symphonies, concerti, film music, operas, ballets, and program pieces [ed: like his most famous work, Peter and the Wolf]. At the time, his works were considered both ultra-modern and innovative. He traveled widely, spending many years in Paris and Ettal in the Bavarian Alps, and toured the United States five times. He gained wide notoriety and his music was both reviled and triumphed by the musical press of the time. He returned to his homeland permanently in 1936. He died on March 5, 1953 in Moscow.

(short biography courtesy www.prokofiev.org)

The website listed above is a essentially a fan site that has collected everything there is to know about Prokofiev and has even gotten surviving family involved in its growth and maintainance.  Look around for anything you’d like to know about him.

Much information is also available at The Serge Prokofiev Foundation.

Prokofiev wrote the March, op. 99 in 1943-44 for a Soviet military band.  It received its premiere in the form of a radio broadcast from Moscow on April 30, 1944.  While the details of the impetus for its composition are unclear, it is possible that it was written for May Day, an important Soviet holiday.  The March made its way to the West in part thanks to Paul Yoder, who arranged it for Western instrumentation shortly after its Russian premiere.  It was first heard in the United States on May 31, 1945 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Combat Infantry Band.  Prokofiev reused substantial section of the March in the last opera he would complete, Story of a Real Man, in 1947-48.

It’s worth the trouble of listening to 2 different performances of this work.  One follows the printed tempo (quarter=134).  The other goes much faster, making the March into more of a galop.  See what you think:

I owe much of the information on this page to William Berz’s full score critical edition of this piece.  His description of Soviet band instrumentation is worth quoting directly, since it is so succinct and informative:

Prokofiev’s March, op. 99 was originally written for the instrumentation of the Soviet military band of the time.   As was typical for Soviet composers, the scoring for this march was split into three instrument families:

  • orchestral winds (piccolo, flute, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, two E-flat horns, two B-flat trumpets, three trombones);
  • saxhorn family (two cornets, two E-flat alto horns, three trombones in treble clef, baritone in treble clef, tuba);
  • percussion (tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals)

As you can see, it’s quite different from what we’re used to, hence the need for an arrangement very early in the piece’s existence.

The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E-flat Major, Op. 42, more conventionally known as the 1812 Overture, may be one of the most recognized pieces of Western art music.  Tchaikovsky wrote it in 1880 on a commission for performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.  It was intended to be part of a festival to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1812 Battle of Borodino, in which Russian forces turned back Napolean’s invading Grande Armee outside Moscow.  This was an utterly improbable victory: the French forces were well-trained, battle-hardened, and large, numbering around 150,000. They had state-of-the-art artillery, and they had never lost a battle.  The Russians had no hope of matching them on any level.   However, the French were exhausted from a long campaign, while the Russians had their people from which to draw reserves.  Both sides suffered heavy casualties during the battle, but the French ultimately felt their losses more profoundly.  The Russians, though, were forced to retreat from Moscow.  Yet in doing so, they burned a large portion of the city, denying the French quarter in the cold.  A deep freeze set in, which froze much of the French artillery to the ground.  At this point, the Russians were able to force a retreat of the exhausted French forces, turning their own artillery against them.  Only about 23,000 Frenchmen made it back across the Russian border.

The 1812 Overture portrays the events in and around that battle.  It opens with a hymn based on the Russian Orthodox Troparion of the Holy Cross as the Russian people, hearing of the impending invasion, pray for deliverance.  Tense preparations for battle follow.  The French can be heard approaching to the tune of La Marseillaise, which grows ever more prominent as they gain the upper hand in battle.  A folk dance (“At the gate, at my gate”) comes in, depicting the Tsar appealing to his people to join the cause.  The battle continues with the French still dominating, followed by more appeals to the people.  With Moscow burning, the tide finally turns as the opening hymn returns punctuated by icy woodwind scales, heralding divine intervention by deep freeze in the Russians’ favor.  The famous finale features scored cannon shots and clanging bells, meant to reflect the Russian appropriation of the French artillery and the celebratory ringing of church bells at the conclusion of the battle.

Tchaikovsky was a rather miserable fellow, and that is evident in his feelings about this piece, which he saw as little more than a vapid propaganda exercise.  There are some truly choice quotes in this discussion of his correspondence relating to the 1812 Overture.  My favorite: “It is impossible to set about without repugnance such music which is destined for the glorification of something that, in essence, delights me not at all.”

Here’s a rousing recording, complete with pealing bells and roaring cannons at the end:

1812 Overture on Wikipedia, the Burgess Hill Symphony Orchestra, classical.net, and the Hollywood Bowl.

A nice article from 2003 about how this Russian overture became an American 4th of July tradition.

Tchaikovsky info on DSO Kids, wikipedia, and Tchaikovsky Research.

The 1812 Overture has inspired countless pop culture responses.  Here are just a few:

Vodafone made an ad in which they used 1000 cellphones to recreate the finale of 1812.

An online game in which you fire cannonballs at the conductor.

A Subway commercial uses the finale music to good comic effect.

In case you were wondering, I do not endorse any of the stuff in these commercials.

Boris Kozhevnikov (1906-1985) was a prolific composer of music for Soviet bands.  He attended the Kharkov Music-Dramatic Institute, where he studied composition and conducting, graduating in 1933.  He later attended the Military School of Music in Moscow.  He was the conductor at several theaters and a faculty member of the Moscow Conservatory.  He wrote a handful of orchestral works and over 70 pieces for Soviet military bands, including 5 numbered symphonies for band.  His music was discovered by the west only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain in the 1990s.  He is still much better known in Russia than anywhere else, although his Symphony no. 3, Slavyanskaya, enjoys popularity in the US thanks to an edition that former Marine Band commander John R. Bourgeois created for American bands in 1995.

Slavyanskaya is a fairly conventional Russian-sounding symphony in four movements.  The first is at times aggressive and lyrical, opening with a strong F-minor declamation.  The second is a slow waltz with an exuberant episode in its coda.  A spritely piccolo solo opens the 3rd movement, a rondo which whizzes by at lightning speed.  The fourth movement is an exuberant finale.  Throughout the symphony, Kozhevnikov uses folk tunes from his native city of Novgorod as the sources of his melodic material.  Although Kozhevnikov wrote Slavyanskaya in 1950, it did not receive its first performance in the US until the late 1990s.

The word “Slavyanskaya” in Russian (Славянская) appears to be nothing more than a proper name.  It’s also applied to a public square in Moscow, a fancy Radisson hotel also in Moscow, and a Russian brand of vodka.

There are bits and pieces about Kozhevnikov and his music, especially Slavyanskaya, at classical-composer.org, the University of North Texas Digital Library, and J. W. Pepper.

Here’s the definitive American performance of Slavyanskaya.  It’s “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band conducted by John R. Bourgeois, who edited the piece for American bands and was the first to conduct it in the US.

Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987) was a Russian composer who managed a successful artistic career during Soviet times.  His music won many awards in his homeland during his lifetime.  He was also a force in music education: he set up a music education curriculum in 25 schools and even briefly taught a class of 7-year-olds.  He wrote “Comedians’ Galop” in 1938 as part of a broader suite of pieces, The Comedians, op. 26.  Originally conceived as incidental music for a play, he later chose 10 numbers for the suite, which became his most famous work.

Here’s the straight-up orchestra version of “Galop”:

And here it is in a bottle band arrangement:

Dmitri Shostokovich (1906-1975) was one of the great composers of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest to emerge from the Soviet Union.  His relationship with the Soviet government, especially Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, defined nearly every aspect of his life.  He was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in the last years of tsarist rule in Russia.  The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 came when Shostakovich was 11, but its influence stayed with him the rest of his life.  His rise to fame came at the hands of an aid to Leon Trotsky, a father of the revolution.  Shortly thereafter, Trotsky’s exile and the death of Vladimir Lenin left  Stalin in charge, and he ruled with an iron fist and no patience for dissent or criticism of any kind.  The arts were to reflect the official reality of Soviet existence, and thus “Formalist” works (that is, any work that displayed hints of modernism or abstract content) were at least frowned upon, if not banned outright.  Shostakovich made something of a game of pushing as far towards this line as possible, sometimes even drifting past it.  He was officially denounced by the regime twice, only to later rehabilitate his reputation through new, more apparently pro-Soviet works.  At times the regime used him as a mouthpiece, and he seemed only too willing to comply.  Yet his works often show signs of weariness or outright contempt for his government.  His controversial memoir, Testimony, seems to confirm the notion that Shostakovich did not wish to support the Soviet regime.  However, the memoir’s emergence 4 years after his death and the murky circumstances of its creation, not to mention its appearance at the height of the Cold War, all call into question its truthfulness.  Still, Shostakovich undeniably made beautiful music, including 15 symphonies, an equal number of string quartets, large quantities of film music, and 2 operas which he held dear for his entire life.

Shostakovich wrote Festive Overture in 1954 on a commission for the Bolshoi Theatre’s celebration of the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution (in 1917).  Shostakovich completed the piece in less than a week.   It opens with an exuberant, rising fanfare which transitions to a spritely, lyrical main theme at a breakneck tempo.  The overture speeds past, with a brief return to the fanfare figure before an energetic coda.

The original orchestral version:

The Hunsberger band version by the University of Michigan Symphony Band and Michael Haithcock.

Here’s a trumpet-only version: 8 trumpeters from Juilliard!

Festive Overture on wikipedia, Kennedy Center program notes, and BSO kids’ music curriculum.

Shostakovich bio on Wikipedia.

The debate about Shostakovich and his allegiances rages on…

Dmitri Shostokovich (1906-1975) was one of the great composers of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest to emerge from the Soviet Union.  His relationship with the Soviet government, especially Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, defined nearly every aspect of his life.  He was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in the last years of tsarist rule in Russia.  The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 came when Shostakovich was 11, but its influence stayed with him the rest of his life.  His rise to fame came at the hands of an aid to Leon Trotsky, a father of the revolution.  Shortly thereafter, Trotsky’s exile and the death of Vladimir Lenin left  Stalin in charge, and he ruled with an iron fist and no patience for dissent or criticism of any kind.  The arts were to reflect the official reality of Soviet existence, and thus “Formalist” works (that is, any work that displayed hints of modernism or abstract content) were at least frowned upon, if not banned outright.  Shostakovich made something of a game of pushing as far towards this line as possible, sometimes even drifting past it.  He was officially denounced by the regime twice, only to later rehabilitate his reputation through new, more apparently pro-Soviet works.  At times the regime used him as a mouthpiece, and he seemed only too willing to comply.  Yet his works often show signs of weariness or outright contempt for his government.  His controversial memoir, Testimony, seems to confirm the notion that Shostakovich did not wish to support the Soviet regime.  However, the memoir’s emergence 4 years after his death and the murky circumstances of its creation, not to mention its appearance at the height of the Cold War, all call into question its truthfulness.  Still, Shostakovich undeniably made beautiful music, including 15 symphonies, an equal number of string quartets, large quantities of film music, and 2 operas which he held dear for his entire life.

Shostakovich wrote the Symphony no. 5 in 1937.  He was under tremendous, even life-threatening pressure to do so after his previous major work, 1936’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, was decried as Formalist by Soviet authorities.  The Symphony was his attempt to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the authorities while still speaking to the broader public.  He succeeded mightily in both tasks.  Government officials read the Symphony as the story of a Soviet man struggling within himself, only to see the light and become one with the Party in the end.  Friends of Shostakovich and Western listeners, on the other hand, could hear Shostakovich pulling against the shackles of totalitarianism, especially in the final measures of the finale, with its seemingly false, stale optimism.  The truth is nearly impossible to know, but it seems very likely that he intended to express some degree of discontent.

Interpretations of the tempos Symphony no. 5 vary widely, especially regarding those final measures of the finale.  I present the finale as conducted by Mravinsky, who conducted the premieres of several Shostakovich symphonies, including the 5th.  Given that, and that he conducted this at the Leningrad Conservatory when it was still called that, I can only think of his interpretation as sound and reflective of the time it was composed.

Now that that’s over with, here’s Leonard Bernstein doing the same movement with the New York Philharmonic.  It’s a better performance on every level, although I would quibble the slightest bit with Bernstein’s final tempo – he goes too fast!  But it’s very much worth a watch!

Now here’s the band version, played very cleanly by a Scottish military band (in 2 parts):

Symphony no. 5 on Wikipedia – very informative.

The San Francisco Symphony deconstructs several key moments in the Symphony.

Shostakovich bio on Wikipedia.

The debate about Shostakovich and his allegiances rages on…