Behind the Scenes: Revolution Program Notes

LexPhil opens the second half of the 2017/18 Season with Shostakovich’s ground-breaking Symphony No. 7 in Revolution! Dedicated to the city of Leningrad, his 'Leningrad Symphony' has remained a symbol of resistance against totalitarianism and militarism in both the Soviet Union and the West. Purchase your tickets today! 


PROGRAM NOTES
By: Daniel Chetel

The breadth of Dmitri Shostakovich’s musical output is perhaps best understood through his fifteen symphonies, which span nearly fifty years of composition and a multitude of musical styles. At one tonal extreme, the Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major glistens with spritely energy reminiscent of the humor of the classical masters Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And at the other, the Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor struggles with the weight of dread, incorporating the work of Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko remembering the horrifying Babi Yar massacre in Kiev.

When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, Shostakovich was a professor at the Conservatory of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where he taught music and participated in the civilian defense of the city, refusing initial calls for evacuations. He began work on what would become his Symphony No. 7 in C major while still living in Leningrad. (He would eventually complete it in the relative safety of Kuybyshev (now Samara), a city east of Moscow, in December of that year.) Beginning in September of 1941, The Nazi army besieged the city of Leningrad for over two brutal years, creating sickening conditions of human suffering and starvation for the civilian population that could not escape; Hitler famously pronounced his intention to destroy the city entirely. Amidst this horror, Shostakovich’s symphony—premiered in Kuybyshev and then in Moscow in March of 1942—was dedicated to the city of Leningrad and its people, and it immediately became a symbol of resistance and perseverance against the fascist and totalitarian forces seeking to destroy Russian culture and history. During the war, it was quickly performed throughout Russia and across the world thanks to world famous conductors working in the West, like Arturo Toscanini in the United States and Henry Wood in Great Britain. It was also poignantly and defiantly performed in Leningrad itself, where on August 9, 1942, a performance of Shostakovich’s anthemic symphony of resistance was performed by the surviving members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra: the performance was broadcast via loudspeakers oriented both towards the population of the city in an act of patriotism and towards the German army’s positions in a demonstration of resolve and defiance.

The first movement Allegretto begins with a bucolic and even hopeful declaration of pride and warmth, but before long the militarism of the snare drum ostinato draws our ears from the simple enjoyment of our natural surroundings to the uncomfortable martial sounds coming from the distance. What begins unthreateningly does not remain so, and the insistence of the unrelenting snare ultimately grows to dominate the sound of the ensemble. By the time it finally stops, the orchestra has been worked up into a fervor of dramatic proportions. Even after again finding a lush majesty reminiscent of the opening, Shostakovich cannot resist a subtle reminder of this threat: the ominous return of the drum in the final, uncertain moments leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Second, where we might expect a slow movement, Shostakovich—known for his funny or even sarcastic scherzos—offers something more akin to musical whimsy and humor. But even this attempt at lightness cannot avoid dramatic intensity for long: the E-flat clarinet kicks off the angry dance with a biting, aggressive scream, and it is soon joined by the incessant snare drum once again. This ostinato figure is then transformed into the fluttering of the flutes, which offer their own light-hearted take on this initially unsettling motive. The third movement Adagio unfurls in an almost recitative-like freedom, imbued with an evident intensity (perhaps reminiscent of Beethoven’s cello recitatives in the final movement of his groundbreaking Symphony No. 9). Of course, Shostakovich cannot let such looseness exist for too long, and the forces of power begin to reassert themselves with the pesante French horns and low strings, and finally the repeated martial ostinato taken up this time throughout the orchestra. The movement concludes with a stirring declamation of strength in the strings before the engine seems to run out of steam completely and finally expire.

The final Allegro non troppo begins without a break from the previous movement and starts as if searching through a mystical uncertainty. Moments of energy cry out from the darkness before Shostakovich begins the insurgent dance that powers the motor of this final heroic cry of defiance. As the pulse alternates back and forth between duple and triple rhythms, Shostakovich always keeps the audience off balance, shifting the ground beneath our musical feet. As the work builds towards its final climax, it is possible to imagine the power of the 1942 Leningrad performance during which the musicians, on behalf of their city and fellow citizens, affirmed their commitment, strength, and humanity, both to their tormentors and to themselves.