Grotesque music for grotesque times

After the storm? Before the storm? Shiver, tremble and enjoy! © Charles Thibo
After the storm? Before the storm? Shiver, tremble and enjoy! © Charles Thibo

Imagine this: A young, eager student, firmly set to become a pianist-composer, with his talent at the piano confirmed at early age, is being refused for a post-graduate piano class because of “insufficient maturity”. Several months later, having finally been admitted, he starts to compose his first symphony, his graduation task. He finishes it ten months later and his work causes ripples in the music scene at home and abroad.

It all happened in 1924/25, and the name of the composer is Dmitry Shostakovich. The symphony was first played on May 12, 1926 and the performance was coincidentally the first radio broadcast from the Leningrad Philharmony. The piece was quickly taken up abroad, one of the reasons being that the composer was very young: Shostakovich was at the time 19 years old. Amazing, isn’t it?

The concept of the first symphony

I heard Shostakovich Symphony No. 1 , Op. 10 yesterday for the first time live, at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg. I knew it before from a recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Bernard Haitink. The performance was embedded into an interesting concept: the concept of the first symphony. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg under Gustavo Gimeno performed along with Shostakovich’s piece the first symphony of Beethoven and two pieces by the contemporary composer Wolfgang Rihm. Beethoven and Rihm, all executed without a glitch by the OPL, sparked ideas for future posts, but for now we will stick with Shostakovich, a composer that keeps fascinating me.

When Shostakovich started to write the first notes of the symphony, he believed that it “is quite bad, but I have to write it so that I can have done with the Conservatory this year”. It is NOT bad, not at all. It might have seemed bewildering to parts of the audience both in the Soviet Union and in Western Europe as it marks a clear departure from the path of Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov. But at the same time, it mirrors the composing style of Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

Gentle melodies and outburst

Shostakovitch Symphony No. 1 is modern, it carries violent emotions, it is loud, it often gives the brass the upper hand over the strings, the clarinet plays a prominent role, but then there are revelations: In the last third of the first movement, gentle melodies are contrasting with outbursts of the brass and yet harmony is maintained. Or take the piano part in the second movement: simply delightful. And then there is the beginning of the third movement: It starts very gently with a melody for the strings, but then there is counter-movement, announced by other strings, taken up an enhanced by the brass with a discharge by the percussions. In the final movement a short solo for the timpani recalling the opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony – wow!

Once Shostakovich had finished the first two movements, he revised his judgment: “In general, I am satisfied with the symphony. Not bad. A symphony like any other, although it really ought to be called a symphony-grotesque.” Grotesque? May be. But didn’t it reflect the grotesque events of the time?

Shostakovich dedicated the symphony to a friend who fell victim to Stalin’s purge a few years later while he continued to benefit from the support of the Soviet government. Paris, London and New York  revelled in the frenzy atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties, when a man of the name of Adolf Hitler, unknown to the world until then, attempted a coup in Munich and started to channel German resentment into a political movement that would lead to World War II. Perhaps Shostakovich had just seen the sign on the wall before anyone else.

© Charles Thibo

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One thought on “Grotesque music for grotesque times”

  1. I saw Gimeno conduct the Concertgebouw here a few months ago. They played flawlessly (obviously), but both nights were less than inspired. I would have much rather seen them under Jansons, Chailly, Haitink…. I hope the pieces were done justice to!

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