If you are unfamiliar with Shostakovich’s music, then his Fourth Symphony is the perfect introduction to it. All of the characteristics of his symphonic style are present: his passion for experimentation, his respect for Mahler’s symphonies, his flirtations with dance music and his decided preference for bizarre and grotesque effects. These characteristics are exaggerated even further by an orchestra of nearly 130 musicians: almost double the number of a standard symphony orchestra. The Fourth is also one of his most emotionally charged works, as part of it was composed during the first official smear campaign to be held against him. Other such campaigns would follow.
Shostakovich was regarded as one of the great hopes of Soviet music until the beginning of 1936. His addition of such Western modernities as xylophone riffs and shrill woodwind and brass timbres to the classical Russian plush orchestral sound was initially tolerated. He had already been reproved in 1929 for formalism — the Soviet term at that time for reprehensible Western decadence — but his talent was nonetheless recognised, as he had composed several works that fitted the image of the Party’s ideology: the Second and Third Symphonies both end with choral settings of socialist texts. The first blow fell in 1936, when Stalin had already launched his attacks on the cultural elite. The notorious article Muddle instead of music was published in Pravda, the Party newspaper, on Stalin’s orders; in it Shostakovich’s new opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk was declared to be contrary to the interests of the state. The phrase ‘This game can, however, end badly’ was particularly ominous in that it imputed that the composer was playing a dangerous role in his country’s cultural development. This was the time of arrests under cover of darkness, of torture, of show trials and political murders.
It was precisely in this climate that Shostakovich was working on his Fourth Symphony, his most ambitious to date. Only the final movement remained to be composed when the much-contested Pravda article appeared; the other movements were complete. These events did not, however, prevent Shostakovich from completing the symphony and planning its premiere. The rehearsals with the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra did not go smoothly; both orchestra and conductor experienced difficulties with the complexity and the capricious changes of mood of the music. Could a composer who, after all, was under attack, allow himself to compose such subversive music? And, even more important: to what extent could the orchestra allow itself to go along with it? The greater part of those concerned simply did not dare.
The unfortunate irony of this is that Shostakovich could well have got away with the first two movements, given that their short melodic phrases and mechanical rhythms were exactly what the Soviets expected to hear: assertive music, industrial in character, full of new Russian pride and, in the second movement, a scherzo to provide the necessary contrast. The problems in the work lie in the Finale: Party doctrine demanded that such a movement should sound positive and cheerful, as if it were a victory over the conflicts presented in the earlier movements. Shostakovich, however, launched a type of funeral march — a theatrical effect that he had borrowed straight from Mahler — and seeks consolation in a Mahlerian potpourri of dance numbers. Cheerfulness, however, is nowhere to be found; after an almost hysterical climax the music dies away. These final bars are amongst the darkest of the entire symphonic repertoire.
Soviet officials appeared during one of the difficult orchestral rehearsals. Shostakovich was advised to cancel the premiere of the Fourth Symphony, which he did. The Fourth Symphony was to remain unperformed until 1961.
Translation: Peter Lockwood