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About this Piece

Composed: 1945

Length: 27 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, triangle), and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 21, 1946, Alfred Wallenstein conducting

In the spring of 1945, as the Soviet army pushed into Germany, Shostakovich told the press at home that he was working on "a symphony of victory with a song of praise." He dropped broad hints that it would be a choral symphony, but that he did not wish to invite comparison with any other choral ninth symphony. There were other politically orthodox pronouncements attributed to him about how it was time to compose works closely linked with popular struggle. His Seventh and Eighth Symphonies had been monumental works, and the USSR expected the Ninth to be an even bigger monument. What Shostakovich finished in August 1945 was thus a surprise to everyone, a disappointment for many, and a puzzle for others. It was short; there are single movements in the Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies that are longer than the entire Ninth. It was small in scale and full of humor instead of heroism. Shostakovich said, "Musicians will love to play it and critics will delight in blasting it." He didn't know the half of it.

For about two years, Soviet critics were divided about the Ninth, some calling it a delightful, if lightweight, work, and others opining that it amounted to an unwarranted artistic vacation in momentous times when momentous works were called for. Shostakovich had obviously set himself up for such criticism by promising something momentous in the first place. It was not the first time he had teased the public, and the regime, in this way: in 1938 he had told a magazine that he was writing a symphony about Lenin, but no such work materialized. Perhaps, after finding himself at the center of a government crackdown on elitist and modernist musical trends in 1936, he saw such pronouncements as a cheap and easy way of publicly asserting his patriotism and political orthodoxy. But it did him more harm than good when the official axe fell again.

In 1948 the Soviet government, which had relaxed its oversight of the arts during the war years, cracked down again on "formalism," which it defined as an elitist "catering to the purely individualistic experiences of a small clique of aesthetes" while rejecting "the classical heritage," "national character," "service to the people," "truthfulness and realism," and "deep organic connection with the people and their legacy of music and folk song." As in 1936, Shostakovich's prominence made him a necessary target, and many of his works were banned. Though Stalin himself lifted the ban before long, Shostakovich did not come out with another symphony until after Stalin's death in 1953. No one will ever know if he could have shielded himself in 1948 by producing the promised victory symphony in 1945, but it is likely he could have at least cushioned his fall had his latest symphony been a triumph.

The Ninth is sometimes called Shostakovich's classical symphony because of its brevity, form, and frequent chamber character. The classicism is most apparent in the first movement, which follows 18th-century sonata form right down to repeating the exposition (the only Shostakovich Symphony that does). The movement is a spirited, sassy gallop with touches of slapstick, most memorably the trombone's repeated mini-fanfare that both heralds and interrupts the piccolo's statement of the second theme.

The second movement's mood is darker - melancholy, bittersweet, or tragic, depending on the conductor's attitude - but still more rooted in dance than in song. The theme that the clarinet introduces could be a slow waltz, but its three-beat pulse is interrupted at odd intervals with a one-beat hesitation.

The final three movements are played without pause. The Scherzo begins fleeting and mercurial, becomes downright demonic as the brass assert themselves, and then, instead of building to a furious climax, loses momentum and starts to die away. It is blasted aside by a Mussorgskian Largo that consists of two menacing pronouncements from the trombones and tuba, each of which is followed by a soulful bassoon solo. The second solo turns into the jaunty principal theme of the Finale, which sometimes has the feel of a dance and sometimes of a march.

- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Salzburg Festival and the Coleman Chamber Concerts.