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About this Piece

Length: 46 minutes
Orchestration:piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), timpani, harp, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 24, 1945, Alfred Wallenstein conducting

No composer's creations are more heavily laden with extra-musical baggage than those of Dmitri Shostakovich. In an age when in the West the notion of program music (i.e., instrumental music associated with a "story") was considered old hat, Shostakovich worked within an artistic/political system that officially demanded art rooted in the literal. Even non-vocal music had to be "about something," moods if not events, events uplifting or accusatory.

With Shostakovich's music meanings are easy to assess when we are given clear signs - words, such as in his patriotic cantatas; titles, such as "Leningrad," his Seventh Symphony (1941), which has no words, but does suggest actions, that city's resistance to German armies during World War II. The clues to meaning are all over the "Leningrad" score, and they add up to a grandiose musical portrayal of conflict, heroism, and victory. There is, however, nothing so simplistic about its predecessor, the Sixth Symphony (1939), and the composer provided no verbal clues regarding its meaning. There are contradictions galore, however, between the darkly dramatic, even tragic, and the outright giddy in its pages that raise their own questions.

The background of the Sixth Symphony is, neither for the first or last time in the composer's output, a struggle between duty to the state and the communist ideology - whose original, socially progressive tenets the composer never forswore, although condemning their Stalinist corruption - and the callings of conscience. Furthermore, the Sixth must be viewed in conjunction with the Fifth Symphony, its 1937 predecessor.

Some necessary background on the Fifth comes from the ever-passionate and perceptive Richard Taruskin in his Defining Russia Musically (Princeton University Press, 1997):

"The Fifth Symphony amounted to a paradigm of Stalinist neoclassicism, testifying, so far as the powers were concerned, to the composer's obedient submission to discipline. It was time to reward him… The immediate reward was an orgy of public praise (later there would be Stalin prizes and titles and honorary posts). It went on for months, to the point where Isaak Dunayevsky, the songwriter who was then president of the Leningrad Composers Union, tried to apply the brakes. On 29 January 1938… he circulated a memorandum comparing the Fifth's reception to a stock speculation, a ballyhoo, even a psychosis that threatened to lead Soviet music into a climate of 'creative laissez-faire' in which the union might not be able to exercise its police function [i.e., deciding whether a work was compatible with the party's populist, simplistic artistic ideology]."

There was a complex backlash as well to the hugely favorable reception accorded the Fifth Symphony - and "the groveling civic panegyric that inevitably accompanied Soviet public rhetoric" (Taruskin). Whatever Shostakovich wrote next was likely to be pummeled, at least questioned, and what he wrote next was the Sixth Symphony, a puzzler even by the lights of this perpetually puzzling man and composer.

To amplify the history of the Sixth Symphony: The composer announced after the positive reception of the Fifth, which restored him to the favor of the Composers Union - and Stalin - after being accused of "affronts to decency and comprehensibility" with the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk four years earlier, that his next symphony would be an immense musical monument to Lenin, in the manner of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, i.e., with soloists, and chorus. His thoughts were outlined in an interview given to a Soviet journal in September of 1938, roughly a year after the premiere of the Fifth: "I have set myself a task fraught with tremendous responsibility, to express in sound the immortal image of Lenin as a great son of the Russian people and as a leader of the masses. I have received numerous letters from all over the Soviet Union with regard to my future symphony. The most important advice contained therein was to make considerable use of musical folklore."

In December of 1939 the Sixth Symphony appeared as part of a festival of Soviet music in Leningrad, performed by that city's Philharmonic orchestra under Evgeny Mravinsky, then a close friend and collaborator of the composer. But, shockingly, the symphony lacked soloists and chorus. There was no reference to Lenin, implicit or explicit. No folk songs. And not an iota of the "heroic grandeur" of the Fifth Symphony. That work was even begun on a "Lenin Symphony" is inferred from progress reports of dubious authenticity that appeared early in the year in the Soviet press, some perhaps leaked - disingenuously - by the composer himself. (Shostakovich would finally write a - textless - symphony [No. 12] dedicated to Lenin in 1961. It is widely regarded as his weakest.)

Shostakovich's audience and the critics were disappointed. In the words of one Soviet-era commentator, Ivan Martynov, a work as "full of action, and dramatic unity as the Fifth" was expected. Instead, listeners got an abstract work of unusual construction: a long, somber slow movement followed by two spirited, breathlessly fast sections. Martynov, while discounting the Lenin connection, supplied his own program: "The idea of the Sixth may be… allegorically explained as the juxtaposition of past and present. The past, belonging to a world of foment and struggle for the liberation of the human spirit… this accounts for the restrained and introspective character [of the first movement]. The present is sheer exaltation in victory and lends the music its airy, carefree character."

But whether one actually considers the second and third movements carefree is something else. And here we get into another of those Shostakovich "problems." We are likely, if experienced with this period in musico-political history, to regard movements 2 and 3 as mocking, particularly if forearmed with familiarity with the 19-year-old composer's cheeky First Symphony. He was being satirical there and likewise here, isn't he? Of what, though? Is he thumbing his nose at Soviet ponderousness? Or is he just having a good time? Those menacing bassoon rumblings in the second movement of the Sixth Symphony, the hysterical basses in both fast movements of same hint at something sinister. Or is he making a mockery of the over-interpretation of his music?

Surely Movement 1 (Largo), longer than the two subsequent movements combined, consistently dwells in a somber place, filled with complex harmonies, minor-key threats and/or tragedy expressed via the dark colors of English horn, clarinets, bassoons, violas, and cellos. The whole bears some resemblance to the Largo of the Fifth Symphony, but here there is even more gravity, less overt lyricism. In the main theme a favorite device of the composer, the rapid and frequent alternation of high and low registers - here, chiefly in the strings - is utilized to chilling dramatic effect.

The entire movement is based on the cell of a minor third, with a second theme - which follows without transition - the motif of a diminished seventh, with the trill at its close forming the third major ingredient of the movement - the two themes and the trill combined as a sort of super-theme. The composer lays this out as clearly as if he were teaching a music-appreciation class: do listen for it. Chamber music effects abound with, for instance, piccolo or flute, eerily alone or accompanied by the B-flat clarinets. There are walloping climaxes, too, each of which dies away into the gloom. Note, too, the composer's wonderful spotlighting of the melancholy English horn, a lone figure after the din has evaporated.

To Martynov, the Allegro is "fairy-like" - but forget Mendelssohn, what with all the percussion employed here, and Shostakovich's well-muscled fairies roaring rather than floating through the air on gossamer wings. To these ears the music smirks and hectors - how else can one justify that shrieking E-flat clarinet? And how dazzlingly the composer utilizes in this symphony and indeed throughout his orchestral works such "off" instruments as the "other" clarinets, and piccolo, English horn, contrabassoon. Then, too, there is here a prime display of the uniquely Shostakovichian pandemonium of massed woodwinds at the tops of their registers punctuating the blaring brass volleys, with a few xylophone knocks tossed into the spicy stew for good (?) measure.

The finale, Presto, is an effervescent, percussion-rich rondo. (Is there such a drink as a champagne sour?) In this finale the composer exhibits all his robustness, as much frenzied as friendly, to create a sizzling parting shot, suggesting the more riotous aspects of the Shrovetide Fair scene from Stravinsky's Petrushka, but run amok. There are more chamber effects within the tumult, most notably a sly, perky violin solo, while the closing measures constitute a tart, slam-bang (literally) circus march to end all circus marches.

-- Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to music periodicals in the U.S. and Europe.