(The ghosts of Leningrad, now St Petersberg, as captured by the great Alexey Titarenko
I think it is fair to say that a great composer never wastes an idea- be it a musical motive or a technical concept. Everything is explored and developed. We all know that the rhythmic cell at the beginning of Beethoven 5 (3 short notes and a long note) becomes the basis of themes in every movement of the symphony. However, that’s not all he extracts from that opening- as you may remember, after the first four notes, there is a fermata, and after the 2nd four notes, a longer one. This means that the rhythmic flow of the music is immediately interrupted. Beethoven returns to this idea of interruption and discontinuity throughout the symphony, from obvious small examples like the many rests and feramatas in the opening movements to bigger and less obvious examples like the interruption of the Finale with a return of the Scherzo. Everything is explored and developed.
The opening of the first movement of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony is shocking because it is not what we expect- it’s confident when we expect something stormy, tonally secure when we expect something unstable.
After the cataclysm of the invasion theme, and the long requiem theme that follows, it is hard to imagine that the second movement of the symphony would be anything but a lament. So, just as the opening of the symphony seems inappropriately cheerful, so too does the opening of the Scherzo. I wouldn’t call it cheerful, but it is certainly enigmatic and quirky, even whimsical.
Humor played a big role in the Allegretto, and so it does here as well. This long opening section is very enigmatic music- dry, elegant, funny, ironic, sophisticated. From bar to bar we’re not sure if we’re supposed to take it at face value or not. It is music that is outwardly accessible, but fundamentally perplexing. Critics of the work find this ambiguity intolerable- reading their assessments of this movement is like sitting in a movie theatre with someone who can’t follow the plot or deal with the unknown. If they don’t know if a given character is a baddie or a goodie, they don’t want to follow the story.
Shostakovich doesn’t call this movement a Scherzo, and the musical material is just ambivalent enough that a listener might not know if it was a dance movement or not. Generally, minuets and scherzos are monothematic. The typical form is Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo. The Scherzo section will be in two parts (each repeated), but both parts are generally made of the same stuff. The second section works with the same thematic ideas, usually just elaborated, before returning to more familiar ground just before the end. In this movement, Shostakovich creates the expectations of a Scherzo when he repeats the opening thematic ideas, but it is not a literal repeat- instead, the 1st violins take over the theme from the 2nds.
Then instead of the 2nd section being an elaboration of the repeated first section, he introduces a completely new theme in the oboe. Again, our expectations, which he has carefully cultivated, are challenged. Are we back in the world of sonata form? Is he making up for the damaged form of the first movement? This second theme certainly sticks in the head, largely through its distinctive scoring. The long melody is set at the top of the oboe register, very high, over a repeated string ostinato.
After this long oboe episode, he seems to confirm our suspicion that this is a sonata movement by introducting a 3rd group of ideas with a mournful cello melody. Is this a closing theme- proof positive that we’re in sonata form? Wouldn’t that be interesting?!?!?!
Finally, things wind down, and first violins restate the opening theme in pizzicato- which further confuses the issue. Is it just a Scherzo after all, and are the 2nd and 3rrd themes just part of the b-section? What is going on here?
Suddenly the mood shifts. Is this the Trio of a Scherzo, or the Development of a sonata form? Humor was a big part of the 1st movement- remember that the invasion theme seemed to use humor to mask its maeleveolent nature. There have been elements of wit and humor throughout the 2nd movement, but suddenly, the humor, as in the 1st mvt, turns nasty. Where the first section of the movement was soft, whimsical and low key, here the music becomes bitterly sardonic, aggressive and caustic. There are shrieking high tunes for E-flat clarinet and oboe, and buffoonishly aggressive low melodies for conrtra bassoon and low strings. Later there are quasi-millitary outbursts in the trumpets, which are usually doubled by the low tuba, a very interesting, agressive and distinctive sound.
At the climax of this middle section, the trumpets shout their fanfares, answered by triumphalist declarations of the strings and woodwinds over thundering accompaniment in the timpani, low strings and bassoons. Over and over again, they hammer out the same 2 note figure: C-G-C-G. It’s the first two notes of the symphony, but possibly more telling, the same interval as that repeated punctuation in the timpani and trumpets at the beginning of the piece. Gradually, our questions about the opening of the symphony are being answered- the melody of the beginning of the work is so soulful when it returns at the end of the first movement that we can accept it as quite sincere in nature, but this section seems to confirm our suspicion about those early timp and trumpet interjections. There is something violent and evil in that simplistic, hammering fourth. In this passage in the 2nd Mvt, Shostakovich seems determined to shake the music free of that hammering fourth, by shifting meters, scoring and keys, but nothing seems to work.
So, we’ve had another movement in which a sense of stability is shattered by a violent outburst. Another movement in which something that could have been a sonata form is interrupted by a middle section built of unrelated ideas. What then to expect of the 3rd panel of this movement?
I think it is fair to say that a great composer never wastes an idea- be it a musical motive or a technical concept. Everything is explored and developed.
In the first movement, the recapitulation is like a dark mirror image of the exposition. A heroic first theme becomes a scream of anguish. A hopeful second theme becomes a desolate lament. It is not a validation or a culmination, but a melancholic reminiscence. Likewise, in the final panel of the 2nd movement, Shostakovich creates another mirror image. Where the 2nd theme of the first movement is heard originally in soulful tutti violins, the recapitulated on lonesome, plaintive solo bassoon, the 2nd theme of the 2nd movement is first heard on painfully high solo oboe, and recapitulated on painfully low bass clarinet. In fact, a good chunk of this solo is written below the register of a standard bass clarinet- one needs either a special bass clarinet of a contrabass clarinet to get the lowest 3 notes.
In the end, we’re left unsure of what we’ve just heard. A symphonic Scherzo? An Intermezzo, or break in the action? The Sonata movement we should have heard originally? On the surface the mood is very different from the 1st mvt, yet we seem to be falling into the same traps, reliving the same catastrophes. Perhaps the tempo marking tells the story “Moderato (poco allegretto),” or “differently (but a little bit the same as the first).”
Is this our destiny- to repeat the same tragic patterns, day after day, war after war?
Still think this piece is all film music and feel-good propaganda?