Symphony No.6

Dmitry Shostakovich

Symphony No.6 in B minor

Op. 54

About this work

When Shostakovich was writing this symphony in 1939, the artistic atmosphere in Soviet Russia was in a transitional state. Though government censorship was still pervasive, composers were encouraged to write anti-German propaganda, at least until the period of the Nazi-Soviet treaty. When Germany invaded, of course, Soviet cultural bosses were forced to turn their attention to the war, and anti-German music came back into fashion.

Shostakovich had indicated his intention to write a choral symphony about Lenin in 1938, but would not get around to it for another 22 years, until the Symphony No. 12 (1960-1961). He undoubtedly felt compelled to write patriotic music -- or to promise to do so -- since he had already incurred the wrath of party censors with his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was banned in 1936. His decision to abandon the idea of composing a Lenin symphony instead of his purely instrumental Symphony No. 6 probably had something to do with fears that if such a patriotic work were greeted unenthusiastically by party arts officials, he might end up in a labor camp or cemetery with some of his less fortunate colleagues. Perhaps he sensed that Stalin may not have wanted all the glory and attention of the Revolution attributed to Lenin, and thus decided to steer clear of the idea for the time being.

In any event, Shostakovich produced a work whose gloomy and intense opening panel is counterbalanced by a pair of jovial and light movements. Put together, they are shorter than the opening Largo, and the contrast presented by their cheerfulness and wit gives the symphony a somewhat split personality. The main theme of the first movement is presented in the lower strings: it is a muscular, dark melody that is repeated in many guises during the exposition. A new theme finally appears on the English horn to launch the second subject group, and then the material is reprised, but in a much more compact way.

The second movement is marked Allegro and immediately takes on a playful character. While the music and orchestration sound like Shostakovich, the spirit of Prokofiev seems to hover above. Although there is some tension and conflict in the middle section, the impression left by this Scherzando is one of joy and good humor.

The finale, marked Presto, is exuberant, almost ecstatic throughout most of its duration. Even the subdued and brief middle section seems eager to hand the reins back to the infectious good spirits of the main material. The ending is one of the most joyous, colorful, and unpretentious the composer ever wrote. There is neither bombast here nor an extraneous note.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 was premiered on November 5, 1939, and received little notice. Coincidentally, Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, a product of the anti-German tendency then prevalent, also received its first performance at the same concert, garnering much acclaim. Some have conjectured that Shostakovich may have been fortunate that his symphony drew little attention, for Soviet censors might have singled out the tragic first movement as too cerebral and confusing. A typical performance of the work lasts just under 30 minutes.