Concert Notes

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9

Notes by TŌN violinist Jonathan Fenwick

The Composer 
A child prodigy, Dmitri Shostakovich achieved international fame at age 19 with the premiere of his First Symphony. His early works were met with critical success, but he landed in hot water when Joseph Stalin attended his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936. Two days later, an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda. The article condemned the opera as anti- Soviet formalism, warning that “this is a game . . . that may end very badly.” Days later, the article “Balletic Falsity” denounced his ballet The Limpid Stream. Performances of his works declined, and Shostakovich was expected to step back into line. If he didn’t, the consequences would have been devastating. In 1936–38, during the Great Purge, millions of Soviet citizens were summarily executed or sent to gulag labor camps. Thus began the balancing act Shostakovich would perform for the rest of his career, composing music to appease the authorities without sacrificing artistic merit. Works such as the Fifth and Seventh symphonies satisfied the Party while subtly expressing rage against Soviet tyranny. 

The Music 
The Ninth Symphony premiered months after the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in WWII. In honor of the occasion, Shostakovich was expected to produce his grandest work yet. Instead, he delivered one of his shortest and frothiest creations. The first movement begins with a chirpy and cheerful theme in the violins. The entrance of the trombone and snare drum seems to promise a heroic theme, but they immediately fade away to be replaced by the piccolo whistling a frivolous tune. The second movement is worlds apart, a sparsely orchestrated, eerie waltz. The last three movements are played without pause. First is a rip-roaring scherzo, heavily featuring the clarinet. Suddenly the scherzo dies away, and the fourth movement begins with a menacing proclamation by the low brass, followed by a mournful bassoon solo. But soon the bassoon changes to a jaunty little tune for the finale, which runs the gamut from circus music to a plucked Spanish fandango, before the percussion join for the big finish. Before the premiere, Shostakovich predicted that “musicians will love to play it, and critics will delight in blasting it.” He was right on the money. Critic Israel Nestyev called it “a rejection of great, serious problems for the sake of playful, filigree-trimmed trifles.” Shostakovich was once again denounced in 1948.