Symphony No.9

Dmitry Shostakovich

Symphony No.9 in Eb major

Op. 70

About this work

Shostakovich composed this work for Schumann-sized orchestra plus percussion in the summer of 1945, and Yevgeny Mravinsky led the first performance at Leningrad on November 3 of that year. Given the size of Shostakovich's war-haunted seventh and eighth symphonies, Joseph Stalin expected a Ninth in 1945 that "out-Mahlered Beethoven," in the late Boris Schwarz's phrase. In Testimony, Solomon Volkov recalled the composer's saying, "They wanted a fanfare from me, an ode, a majestic Ninth....I doubt that Stalin ever questioned his own genius or greatness. But when the war against Hitler was won, he went off the deep end, like a frog puffing himself up to the size of an ox, and now I was supposed to write an apotheosis of Stalin. I simply could not....My stubbornness cost me dearly."

Volkov called the Ninth a work "full of sarcasm and bitterness." Disguised as an homage to Haydn, it was Shostakovich's shortest symphony since the Second of 1927, despite having five movements (the last three are played without pause). In an effort to shield Shostakovich from political fallout, conductor Mravinsky called the new symphony "a joyous sigh of relief...a work directed against philistinism, which ridicules complacency and bombast, the desire to rest on one's laurels." Putting on a good face, the Soviet hierarchy echoed Mravinsky, but only temporarily.

By and large, Western critics dismissed the work as trivial. However, in his 1990 book The New Shostakovich, Ian MacDonald asserted that "only a dunce could have failed to realize the composer was up to something," pointing out the code-bearing nature of recurring notes and rhythms. A "Stalin motif" is frighteningly present -- always two notes, one usually short, one long -- from its raucous first appearance, without musical point, in the double-exposition of a giddy Allegro movement. The opening "mimic the ordinary citizen's carefree relief at the victorious conclusion of the war. the second subject -- a crude quick-march, led by a two-note, tonic-dominant trombone -- is clearly symbolic of the Vozhd Stalin]." MacDonald hears "fights breaking out for a hectic moment the music continues in two keys until the trombone wrests control," whereupon strings capitulate "and the reprise ends on sneering trills, the quick-march in control."

A Moderato movement follows, with a B minor main subject for clarinet that is "wan, sad-faced, with a telltale two-note pendant," and "a heel-dragging" second one: "a chain of two-note cells subtly mock conventional grief." Horns "warn off real feeling" that breaks through briefly, whereupon "happy-face clowns a cheery scherzo...another street party that goes violently wrong."

Menacing brass octaves begin the fourth movement; then a bassoon recitative sends mixed signals, "another mask" that leaves the strings uneasy. The Allegretto finale "erupts into action....A dark whirlwind drives the movement to a climax of teetering expectation -- but all that emerges is the clownish main theme, hammered out by the entire orchestra. Shostakovich's contempt is scalding. Here are your leaders, the music jeers: circus clowns. Point made, summons a helter-skelter coda and slams Ninth] shut."

For MacDonald it is "an open gesture of dissent ruthlessly targeted Stalinism....Wagnerisms, the most prominent being an allusion to Wotan's Leitmotif in the fourth movement, are probable expressions of the view, outlined in Testimony, of Stalin and Hitler as 'spiritual relatives.'" Shostakovich paid dearly indeed for the snub; he was damned in 1948 as a "formalist" and blacklisted, leaving him only movie scores for income. After Stalin's death in 1953 he finished a Tenth Symphony, in whose scherzo the Vozhd himself makes one last, unforgettably terrifying appearance.