(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.