Shostakovich’s Great Big Serious 9th Symphony… PSYCHE!
I always love an opportunity to present the great Dimitri Shostakovich as the mastermind he is. His Symphony No. 9 is most def. a case in point!
Educated music historians are aware of the so-called composer’s curse. Beginning with the late Ludwig Van Beethoven, it seemingly became a pattern that upon the completion of his ninth symphonic masterpiece a composer would croak. This is evidenced in the death of Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler, and Vaughan Williams who all died within weeks of reaching this ill fated number in their composition repertoire… ok so maybe this is a bit of an over simplification but the point is that #9 is a significant number to the “greats” who followed in their predecessor’s footsteps.
When it came time for Shostakovich to write his Symphony No. 9, the Russia music community was practically teeming with excitement over the possibilities Shosty would explore in his music. Many expected him to pull out the big guns and write a symphony to include choir like the massive Beethoven counterpart. These suspicions were bolstered by the composer’s declaration in October 1943 that the symphony would be a large composition for orchestra, soloists and chorus which the context would be “about the greatness of the Russian people, about our red army liberating our native land from the enemy (the Nazi’s)”. The government who had their fingers in all matters of art (because government officials surely know everything about everything when it comes to evaluating music) expected a nationalistic wonder full of serious sentiment and dignity. Of course they were all woefully disappointed…
Despite initial sketches presented by Shostakovich in April of 1944, he ultimately lost inspiration for his originally intended work. Following a long break, during which he dropped the project completely, he resumed working and finished the real Symphony No. 9 on August 30th, 1945. This symphony turned out to be a completely different work from the one he had originally planned, with neither soloists nor chorus and a much lighter mood than expected. He forewarned listeners, “In character, the Ninth Symphony differs sharply from my preceding symphonies, the 7th and the 8th. If the Seventh and the Eighth symphonies bore a tragic-heroic character, then in the Ninth a transparent, pellucid, and bright mood predominates.”
As predicted by Shostakovich himself, many of his colleagues praised the symphony as charming and overall successful, whereas the government critics believed it to be “Ideologically weak” and “misrepresenting of the Soviet attitude”. Surprisingly the West reacted unfavorably as well, believing it to be a childish celebration over the defeat of Hitler. This was a very tender time for the world so certain considerations for their error in judgment can be excused… Symphony No. 9 was nominated for the Stalin Prize in 1946, but failed to win it. By order of Glavrertkom, the central censorship board, the work was banned on 14 February 1948 in his second denunciation together with some other works by the composer. It was removed from the list in the summer of 1955 when the symphony was performed and broadcasted.
In Beethoven-like fashion, the entirety of the work spans 5 mvts (note: the Beethoven 9th Symphony is technically four movements but the nature of the fourth movement lends itself to being broken in two parts making it seem as if it were five movements) . On a personal note I have recently performed this Symphony and have found it to be delightful. It is sweet and joyful while still retaining that creepy tombstone quality that is found in all music of Shosty (he dedicated the entirety of his works to the thousands who were killed in Stalin’s purges). My favorite moment would certainly be the theme in the first mvt. played as a violin solo (In my performance our concertmaster/violin soloist was a tall blond Russian guy by the name of Igor Kalnin so I couldn’t help but bask in the awesomeness)!
Below I am including a video of said 1st Mvt: