Leningradskaya I- Allegretto

(The ghosts of Leningrad, now St Petersberg, as captured by the great Alexey Titarenko)

By this point in my life, the vast majority of works I’m conducting are ones I’ve already been thinking about for a long time, and already have very strong convictions about. However, one of the delights of the job is that there are always pieces you can leave to discover and explore when an opportunity to perform them comes along. As long as you continue to study and learn new works, the opportunity for a genuine revelation is there.

I’ve always been a Shostakovich nut, but some of the symphonies I’ve known backwards since I was quite young- no.’s 1, 5,8, 9, 10, 12, 14 and 15. The others I have certainly long been aquainted with, but not in the same way- I know them more as a fan, and haven’t had the chance to really figure out what I think about them. This made it all the more exciting when I got the chance to do number 7 last month with the Wrexham Symphony Orchestra.

When I was young, the Leningrad was better known for the crap and nonsense American critics had written about it than for the music itself. The level of sheer invective, usually paired with carefully selected musical excerpts, used out of context, was almost impossible to resist. We grew up being told it was propaganda, that it was film music, that it was banal, self-indulgent, poorly crafted and worse. The “invasion theme” was a huge mistake- a grave manifestation of a lack of taste and professionalism by the composer. Others blamed the material- as if the poor composer was somehow pressured into writing a symphony based on inferior melodies and motives.

I never believed that, but I never quite bonded with the piece as I did with its sister work, the 8th. The 8th begins with a kind of ruthlessly focused angst, while the 7th sounds a bit naïve at the beginning. The meanderings of the 2nd mvt of the 7th seemed a little perplexing to me, compared to the ferocity of the inner movements of 8.

However, over the years, I heard enough good performances to think I had to figure it out for myself- there was the legendary Bernstein-Chicago recording, which every music lover owned at one point, and I also remember a broadcast of the World Orchestra for Peace and Gergiev at the Proms that was pretty awe-inspiring. I gradually became convinced the piece worked, but I wasn’t sure how or why.

Still, it is possible to enjoy a piece while having reservations about it as a work of art- that’s why we call them guilty pleasures. I knew when we programmed the 7th that it would be fun to play and exciting to hear, but I didn’t really know how the whole work would fit together, what it would say, or how I would feel about  it.

Months before the first rehearsal, I was talking with two colleagues- one, who is a Shostakovich agnostic, asked me if it was a great piece or not. I told him I thought it might be, but I didn’t know yet. My other colleague, usually a Shostakovich evangelist, told me in no uncertain terms, that no matter how good most of it was, the “invasion theme” was just “not right” and ruined the piece for him.

Much about the history of the work’s creation and early performances are well known. Shostakovich had been working on the piece long before the war, but started writing it down at speed during the early months of the siege of Leningrad. In such horrible circumstances, one would expect an opening like that of the 5th or 8th symphonies- something bracing, violent, dramatic. Instead, we get a bright, energetic, rather tuneful opening in C major. It sounds kind of cheerful- bordering on triumphalist. The texture is extremely simple- the strings play the melody in octaves, punctuated by the trumpets and timpani, who again and again play the notes G and C. It turns out that those notes, and that interval of a fourth, are going to be very important throughout the symphony.

Is this opening ironic? Is it a depiction of naivety before a cataclysm? What is the relation of the melody to the trumpets and timps- they seem simplistic to the point of being belligerent. Throughout the piece, questions like this come up that musicologists and conductors like to argue about- is this theme the good guys or the bad guys? You don’t have to decide whether or not to take this music at face value. The way he has scored it makes one think it’s likely that some of it is innocent, cheerful and even naïve, while other aspects- notably the trumpets and timps, are more manipulative and cynical.  One thing is for sure—this opening clearly establishes C major as the tonic key of the symphony, far more clearly than the openings of the 1st or 5th do. By the 11th time the trumpets and drums play that G-C, we’re pretty damn sure this is a symphony in C major.

If the opening of the symphony seems on first glance to be quite orthodox, the 2nd theme is even more so. It’s almost like a textbook 2nd theme- in the dominant (G major), lyrical, spacious and long-breathed. It’s also beautifully integrated with what we’ve already heard- where the first theme begins with a falling fourth, this one begins with a rising one. How much more perfect and comfortable can you get- a 2nd theme that, in every way, is the perfect contrast to the first.

I think this second theme achieves a second aim- anyone familiar with Shostakovich’s style is likely to hear the opening with some skepticism. It just doesn’t seem like him to write something so muscular and upbeat without any hint of a double meaning or an ironic undertone. However, the 2nd theme is so gorgeous, and he plays it very straight- there is nothing like the bizarre trumpet timpani interjections of the opening to indicate that we should view this music with suspicion.

Again, as in a textbook sonata-allegro movement, we have a closing theme, which emerges almost seamlessly from the 2nd theme, carrying forward the lyrical and serene mood. There are long, dreamy solos for piccolo and violin- this is something we’ll hear more of throughout the piece, these moments of near stasis, where the music becomes meditative and still. Here, that stillness is calm, genuinely beautiful, and profoundly peaceful- the only sign of mischief in the air is that the exposition doesn’t end in the dominant, as we expect, but on a third relationship- E major.

I’ve used the word “expect” many times already. One reason critics get this piece so wrong as that the don’t understand the ways in which Shostakovich is intentionally manipulating our expectation. Some writers have dismissed the exposition as too neatly fulfilling our expectations- as if it was all a little too “text book.” How sad that they’ve missed the point- which is that this is exactly the effect that Shostakovich wants us to experience. He wants us to feel secure about where the piece is going.

So, what we now expect is the development section, where the three thematic groups will conflict and intermingle and where he will develop their motivic possibilities, and explore some interesting tonal regions. What we get instead is one of the most infamous passages in 20th c. music, the so-called “invasion theme.” It is actually a theme and 12 variations, loosely modeled on Bolero, complete with a snare drum ostinato and a gradual crescendo. We now know beyond doubt that Shostakovich was already working with this theme long before the war. Early on, he apparently called it the “Stalin” theme, it was later called the “Hitler” theme, and in his later year, he simply called it a depiction of evil. He was aware of the inevitable comparisons to Bolero, but remained unapologetic- “this is what evil sounds like to me,” he said.

That evil is not immediately apparent. Perhaps the theme is a little banal, but it is harmless enough- a simple march theme in E-flat major. Through the first few variations, it evolves into something a little bit funny, outright silly, and later completely absurd. If we are to see in this music a sort of political critique, the example couldn’t be more apt. Despots and dictators have long snuck themselves into power by pretending to be fools. A recent American president was a master of this ruse- hiding a ruthless nature behind a buffoonish exterior. His British contemporary might still be in power had he understood the benefits of letting yourself go “misunderestimated.”

As the variations unfold and the volume builds, the music becomes genuinely exciting, even triumphant. It may be a depiction of evil, but it’s quite, well, fun- we are being made complicit it something.  As the music increases in volume, however, we’re no longer so sure we want to cheer along with the music- the evil is getting closer to the surface, and yet it is exciting, it is cathartic. And, when we reach fortissimo, Shostakovich unveils the first real obvious masterstroke- he makes us realize that he has completely altered our perception of time.

Throughout the invasion theme section, he moves very, very slowly. Each variation treats the entire theme from beginning to end, but adds only one new trick. My favorite example is the variation for oboe and bassoon, where the oboe plays a fragment of the theme, which the bassoon simply parrots back exactly the same. Since everything is played twice, it turns a long theme into a very long variation. This is exactly the sort of thing that infuriates many critics of the piece, but it achieves several things- first, it is funny. Second, it builds incredible tension. Third, it’s stretching your attention span.

When the crescendo finally reaches fortissimo, he keeps us there or above not for a bar, or four bars, or 16, but for 204 bars. If the previous variations had unfolded at a more economical pace, or been more richly embroidered, I doubt our attention span could withstand this. Stretched as it is by what precedes, now we’re not only able to follow it, we can’t seem to avert our attention from it.  I find it hard to explain the effect of this section, but it is as if a film maker has a camera focused on a single horrifying act for a painfully long time, then gradually pulls back with a crane shot. Instead of one tragedy we see two, then ten, then fifty, then 200 hundred, then an uncountable multitude. And when we finally see the scale of the cataclysm, we don’t get to look away, but just as the piccolo and violin were free to mediate on things peaceful before, now we must absorb and contemplate the horror before us.

In the midst of all this fortissimo, we finally escape the invasion theme-  again, the camera pulls back and we see humanity. What we hear is the recapitulation- the return of the opening of the symphony. However, what was bright, hopeful, swaggering C major is now apocalyptic,  wailing C minor.

One of the reasons I wanted to do this piece long before I understood it was a masterpiece was because Shostakovich himself seemed to have a special place in his heart for it, alongside the 8th. He called it his Requiem. These pages, this epic unfolding, give voice to something truly horrifying- people who argue about whether it was the Stalinist terrors or the siege of Lenningrad that he was depicting miss the point entirely. What we will see throughout the symphony is that today’s hero is tomorrow’s villain. It’s a requiem for humanity. The message is universal.

In a sonata form, the recapitulation is typically the point in the music where that which has been unstable is made stable. Where the exposition takes us from a home key to a point of departure to unstable tonal regions, we expect the recapitulation to solve the problems of the exposition. Although the exposition of this movement modulates, it doesn’t really have problems. Shostakovich wrote an exposition that is already stable, so, of course, his recapitulation becomes almost a dismantling of what we’ve heard before.

Technically, this achieves something quite fascinating- it makes up for the fact that the invasion theme essentially ate the development. This may seem a rather academic point, but Shostakovich had a profound respect for the need for rigor in his music. He may lead us to think he is being purely theatrical, but there is always a sense that part of what makes symphonic music dramatic and emotional is the intellectual discipline with which one explores and develops ideas. So, on a dramatic level, the cataclysm of the development has created a mournful atmosphere, but on a technical level, the need to transform hopeful, serene and confident material into music that is lamenting, desperate and despairing means that he is back in the world of developmental technique.

His treatment of the 2nd theme is perhaps the most starting example- instead of soulful and glowing first violins, he gives the melody to the solo bassoon. Where the first occurrence of this music is in the dominant (G major), this return, which should be in C major, is instead in F # minor. Instead of unfolding with confident regularity, the phrases are distorted and distended over a strange 7 beat ostinato. The first statement of the 2nd theme lasts 16 bars, divided into 2 even 8 bar phrases, all in cut time, with a lovely chord shift exactly half way through. In the recap, he stretches the same material to 27 bars, and the meter changes every measure. It’s profoundly sad, genuinely heart-wrenching music, but it is also very clever and sophisticated.

In the coda, Shostakovich gives us a pretty literal re-statement of the beginning, back in C major, but this is surely not a re-assertion of confidence, but a longing memory of what has been lost. It turns out that opening melody really was innocent, and now sense of safety that created that innocence  is lost. When the snare drum sneaks back in, and the trumpet plays the invasion theme on last time, the effect is devastating- all this tragedy, and it was just a joke.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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10 comments on “Leningradskaya I- Allegretto”

  1. Peter

    Great essay Ken.

    Exactly right, the “invasion theme” seduces us gradually – we are sucked in until we join in with the marching war-machin. We enjoy the blood-bath and relish the loss of individual identity. The theme invades the symphony like some foreign army of occupation. We like it because it’s great to be on the winning team and to see all evil as “out there” and to believe that with enough force we can wipe every last vestige of evil from the earth. But in believing that black and white scenario, we become the perpetrators of evil.

    But in wars, it is rarely the evil who suffer most. As the music suggests, what is naive, powerless and ordinary gets in the way of conflict and is usually violated by it.

    Look forward to hearing more about this amazing work.

  2. Michael Monroe

    Very nice – like all the best writing about music, this made me want to go right out and hear it. What are your thoughts on Bartok’s little jab at the invasion theme? I ask because, although I really like the “Concerto for Orchestra,” I’ve never found that section funny or much fun to listen to, maybe partly because I’ve so often read how hysterical satirical it is. Or, to put it another way, I’d rather listen to the whole 1st mvt of Shostakovich than that kooky little patch in the Bartok. Maybe the issue is that ultimately the Bartok passage ought to stand on its own, and for me I’m more annoyed by it than anything. (I’d also rather listen to “I Go into Maxim’s”)

  3. Foster Beyers

    Can you reccomend some books about Shostakovich? There is so much controversy in the musicological world with many books being written to espouse certain agendas. I am looking for a source that is a bit more objective. I have read the Laurel Fay biography and the book by Elizabeth Wilson. Know of anything else?

  4. Erik K

    Why not go for a marginally explicit comparison here…the “Invasion theme” is like tantric sex. You constantly build and build and build until the climax is like nothing else. I, of course, am not man enough myself, but got my information from Sting.

    Tension through repetition is the oldest trick in the book…Shostakovich and Ravel just extended it as far as it can probably go. Somehow the notion of minutes and seconds skews what is an otherwise profound effect. The transition Tschaikovsky wrote into the huge statement of the main theme of the 1812 is as insipid as it gets, IMO, but it works, because there is an epic pay off.

    When the orchestra makes it out of the invasion section, the release is absolutely remarkable…cathartic doesn’t even scratch the surface.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Foster

    That’s a big question! I’d read everything and try to make up my own mind. Testimony is something everyone should read before making their minds up- whatever American musicologists fault in it, almost every close musical associate who lived to Glasnost said it was a fair and accurate portrait of DSsch, including Maxim, Rostropovich, Barshai, Dubinsky and many more. You should certainly read Dubinsky’s memoir of the Borodin Quartet- Stormy Applause. A great read, and a good evocation of the currents of the time. The New Shostakovich by the late Ian MacDonald. Shostakovich versus Stalin, but Solomon Volkov (yes him). Really, read it all, then test it against the music.

    Good luck!


  6. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Erik

    I suppose you are right, although I might be the only person I know who never thought of Bolero as in any sexy until someone told me that I was supposed to think it was sexy. Saxophones and trombone solos don’t affect me in that way. However, your tantic metaphor is apt. I remember doing Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna at Aspen many years ago with David Robertson. He started with the Parsifal Prelude, which was the perfect way to slow everyone’s pulse rate to the point they could hear the shape of the Boulez, which moves very slowly with tons of stasis and silence.

  7. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Michael

    Thanks for the comment- great to hear from you, as always. The Bartok episode is perplexing, because it doesn’t seem like him. Of course, there is a reference there, but I don’t know quite what he was trying to say. What I do find irritating is the why some critics of Shostakovich use that moments as some kind of proof that Shostakovich wrote a lousy piece. One only needs to thumb through Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective to be reminded how often composers are wrong about each other’s music. Of course, Bartok was desperately ill, lonely, depressed and broke when he got the commission for the Concerto for Orchestra. He might well have found Shosty’s celeb status more than he could bear. Fortunately, the Concerto for Orchestra is still awesome. And, of course, sometimes a parody works best when one has affection for the original. See: Austin Powers/James Bond…


  8. Peter

    Bartok went in for this kind of thing, if you think of the Haydn parody in the 5th SQ. There he seems to ask, what is a wrong note? It depends on context clearly.

    The Concerto for Orchestra is a work that expresses some optimism in the future,despite Bartok’s miserable circumstances, and that suggests he felt gratitude to his American hosts and perhaps specifically for the commission of the work. The fourth movement explores the idea of interruption – of the lyric voice and the formal framework. He must have asked himself – what is the mother of all symphonic interruptions? Answer – the Leningrad Symphony, so he borrowed it. But in the Bartok, the reference is like a musical joke; a friendly parody that has little dramatic impact by comparison with the original.

    Perhaps Bartok meant to say he was just glad not to be in the conflict zone, but safe in the US, where the violence was far-distant. It was the other side of the coin of his exile. The real problems were far away, and his inner balance was not being disrupted by them in the harrowing way which Shostakovich had experienced.

    Professional jealousy perhaps came into it, but Bartok may also have realised that Shosta’s status was being achieved at a very high price. Not sure how you can extraploate any kind of aesthetic judgement on the Leningrad from this context, unless you hear the reference as peevish mockery of a colleague – but that is not in keeping with the humanity of the work as a whole.

    Context is everything, Bartok is saying – the dictator in your backyard is a menace, but if he is far away, he is simply funny. When we see footage of Mussolini or Hitler these days, we think – how did anyone take these theatrical bufoons seriously, let alone entrust the fate of nations to them? But that is the benefit of our historical distance.


  9. Peter

    Brief Post-script

    Think of Charlie Chaplain’s The Great Dictator – from the States, people could see the comic absurdity of a tyrant’s delusions. But if you were a jew in Theresienstadt, doubtless the Hitler wouldn’t have seemed funny at all, but demonic.


  10. Zoltan

    I find this a great post of yours, not only because I wholeheartedly agree with you (and it’s always a soothing feeling when you read someone with whom you agree ;)), but because you articulated your thoughts so well (arguing with key relationships as well, which surprised me because I tend to think of 20th century music devoid of such relationships — at least to my amateur-level knowledge)

    One point where I came to a different conclusion from you is the very end: I find the reappearance of the first theme and the snare drum in the distant as the sign of the (inescapable?) cycle of naivité followed by betrayal, the building up followed by destruction, the hopefulness followed by hopelessness.

    Going to read the second movement now!

    (Erik, great comparison there! ;))

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