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About this Piece


Full title:
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43

Composed: 1935-36

Length: 60 minutes

Orchestration: 2 piccolos, 4 flutes, 4 oboes (4th = English horn), 4 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 5, 1989, André Previn conducting

When Dmitri Shostakovich began composing his Fourth Symphony in 1934, he was the proud author of a bona fide operatic "hit," Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which was playing to packed houses in Moscow and Leningrad, and was also a property being hotly pursued by foreign opera companies. He was the much sought-after composer of ballets, music for the dramatic theater, and film scores. He was also a concertizing pianist. At the tender age of 28, he was the fair-haired boy of Soviet music. And he knew it.

What he was not, at this stage, was a symphonic master. Shostakovich's specialty was in music for the theater. His First Symphony, his graduation exercise at the Leningrad Conservatory, had become legendary after its first performance in 1926, but it hadn't taken firm hold in the repertory, nor had the Second or Third Symphonies, occasional pieces for orchestra and chorus that were symphonies in name only.

So when he embarked on his new symphony, Shostakovich had something to prove. He wanted to place his own indelible mark on one of the most important musical genres. Friendly competition, too, may have provided added incentive. Gavriil Popov, his peer among Leningrad's musical youth, had just produced his own First Symphony, a work that was widely admired and whose Mahleresque aspirations Shostakovich would surpass in his Fourth Symphony.

Shostakovich made and abandoned quite a few sketches, something that was unusual for him. An early idea was to make the Fourth "a monumental programmatic thing of great thoughts and great passions." He later abandoned the programmatic approach - while retaining the great thoughts and passions - and vowed that his Fourth Symphony would represent the "credo" of his creative work.

In the fall of 1935, Shostakovich began what would become the definitive version of his Fourth Symphony. He had completed the first two of its three movements by the time disaster struck, in January 1936, with the official condemnation of his opera, Lady Macbeth, and the ensuing cultural crackdown against so-called "formalists," of whom Shostakovich was deemed to be a leading representative.

All this came as quite a shock to the composer, as it did to most Soviet artists. They didn't quite know how to react. Fortunately for Shostakovich, he was not forced to participate actively in the public debate, to grovel and recant his "sins." Instead, he observed developments from the sidelines and applied for an audience with Stalin. While he sat cooling his heels waiting for the phone to ring (it didn't), the composer completed the last movement of his Fourth Symphony. Gradually, the furor died down.

In the spring of 1936 - coincidentally, on the day his first child, Galina, was born - Shostakovich played his new symphony to a gathering of musicians which included conductors Fritz Stiedry, then chief conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, and Otto Klemperer, at the time Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Both conductors leaped at the prospect of performing the Fourth Symphony. In the autumn, Stiedry began rehearsals in Leningrad while the score was readied for export.

The premiere was scheduled for December 11, 1936. It was cancelled. That morning, a brief announcement appeared in the local newspaper: "Composer Shostakovich appealed to the Leningrad Philharmonic with the request to withdraw his Fourth Symphony from performance on the grounds that it in no way corresponds to his current creative convictions and represents for him a long outdated phase." It would be 25 years before Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony would receive its first performance.

Over the years, many excuses were aired to explain the withdrawal of the Fourth Symphony and the gaping hole that was left in his catalogue: the conductor had been unprepared or incompetent to conduct it, the orchestral musicians had protested playing it, the composer himself was dissatisfied with its unwieldiness, saying it suffered from "grandiosomania." But the real reasons were political. Confronted by Communist Party functionaries and concert administrators fearful of the consequences of allowing the premiere to go forward, the still-disgraced Shostakovich was coerced into withdrawing his Symphony. One of his contemporaries ruefully observed in his diary: "Shostakovich was so persecuted by the discussions that he withdrew the performance of his new symphony, monumental and dazzling. What a disgrace for us, his contemporaries!"

In hindsight, it seems incredible that anyone should have presumed the Symphony might find acceptance in Stalin's Russia, just as the Great Terror was approaching its peak. Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony is far too monumental and dazzling, far too extravagant and challenging to have satisfied officious Communist apparatchiks charged with enforcing repressive cultural policies. This is the "credo" not of a sincerely repentant, compliant vassal, but of a fiercely independent and enlightened modernist.

The Fourth Symphony is not Shostakovich's longest - the Seventh ("Leningrad") claims that distinction - but with its 20 woodwinds, 17 brass, and large percussion and string sections, it requires the largest orchestra of any of his symphonies. While at times the composer commands these forces to produce eruptions of terrifying magnitude, in much of the Symphony solo instruments are placed in high relief. Framing a relatively brief "scherzo" between two capacious outer movements, each lasting nearly half an hour, Shostakovich's symphonic universe here is on a scale directly comparable with Mahler's. Points of contact with Mahler are everywhere, from the elemental clash of the tragic with the banal, down to minute details of orchestration, harmonic side-slips, and 'cuckoo' calls.

The first movement (C minor) is a sonata form of outsize dimensions. Its gigantic exposition section already affords extensive elaboration of two main thematic areas. The development section proper propels the thematic transformations through new variations - including a dizzying whirlwind of a fugato for strings and a five-voice canon for the brass over galloping percussion - to arrive at a final shattering brass climax on a twelve-note chord, which is marked fffff (quintuple forte). In the drastically foreshortened recapitulation and coda, the themes of the exposition appear in reverse order and with roles reversed. The first theme, for instance, originally performed fortissimo by trumpets and trombones over stomping string chords returns at the end played by a solo bassoon, pianissimo, against the quiet throb of the bass drum.

The second movement is an uncomplicated structure (A-B-A1-B1-coda) in D minor, its "Ländler" qualities reminiscent of Mahler. Each of the two themes is related to material heard in the first movement; the second subsequently served as the model for the main theme of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony (1937). The striking coda, with the faintest wisp of the opening theme unraveling against the whirring clockwork mechanism of castanets, woodblock, and triangle, would be recalled in the coda of the finale of Shostakovich's last symphony, his Fifteenth (1971).

In a symphony already marked by its lavish profusion of ideas, the last movement stands out. Combining the functions of slow movement and finale, it progresses from the opening funeral march (another Mahler association, as seen in his First, Second, and Fifth Symphonies) to an energetic allegro that seems to promise a traditional symphonic finale. Instead, Shostakovich veers off into a series of light, even whimsical episodes, including two waltzes and a gallop, executed with the humor and flair of a seasoned theatrical composer. All the more disturbing, then, is the onset of the coda, with its mighty blast of brass chords in C major over an ostinato of timpani and low strings. The theme of the funeral march returns, and the "heroic" peroration gradually fades into fleeting thematic reminiscences over a sustained pedal tone. At the end of a prolonged, bleak C-minor triad in the strings, the final isolated pitches of the celesta bring the movement and the Symphony to a close on a tone of equivocation.

When it finally became possible, during Khrushchev's "thaw," to dust off the score and perform Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, the mature composer declared himself satisfied with his youthful work (in the initial flush of rediscovery, he even gushed that he thought it the best thing he had ever written), and he refused to change a single note. The premiere, on December 30, 1961, by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under Kiril Kondrashin, was a stunning triumph. The missing link in Shostakovich's symphonic oeuvre turned out to be a major milestone.

-- Laurel E. Fay is the author of Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000).