Symphony no 9 in E flat major, Op. 70 – Dmitri Shostakovich

by richibi


Great Expectations. USSR pavilion at 1939 New York World’s Fair (1947) 

       Veniamin Kremer


it’s become evident that Shostakovich’s 
symphonies require context, a backstory, 
it’s otherwise like listening to a film score
without the movie, though often even 
pleasant, it lacks the poignancy that a 
story would deliver to the music 
accompanying it

not that that’s impossible, John Williams  
has delivered, irrespective of if you’ve 
seen the relevant film, his Shindler’s
List for example, listen 

and I used to fall asleep to Alex North‘s
soundtrack for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Woolf”a film that changed, or rather 
defined, my life, much as Somerset 
Maugham’s Of Human Bondage“, the
book, had done a decade earlier,
would be, I’d intuited,
my destiny  

but for specifically political reasons, 
the symphonies of Shostakovich
apart from a few exceptions, the 
Fifth, the Eighth, though only 
somewhat that one, for instance, 
without the accompanying history, 
don’t hold, the emotional connection 
is too abstruse, foreign, to catch

the Ninth was written in 1945, World
War ll had been won, by the Soviet 
Union as well as the Western Allies

Stalin was still in command, Russians 
were returning to their oppressive, 
indeed murderous, regime 

Shostakovich had been expected to 
bring glory to the Soviet system, he 
delivered instead a joke, in musical
terms, a scherzo, if you can listen to 
the language, a wry joke, instead of 
a paean to the glory of Stalin, he
delivered not at all a full on hour-long
special as he’d been doing before,
but a short, his shortest, symphony, 
full of exaggerated, which is to say,
hypocritical, fanfare

piccolos and flutes cheer, mimicking
flags and banners, trombones boast 
an only uncertain victory, deflating 
even, in the third movement 
decisively, though, I found, 
prolongedly, with winds sounding 
exhausted, but not succumbing to 
standing down, while violins portray 
the population in a frenzy, their 
military industrial complex having 
whipped them into feverish 

Stalin was not amused, the piece 
was banned until after the autocrat’s 
demise, for its “ideological weakness”

nor was the world then, for that matter,
impressed, who thought the Soviet
superstar’s response to victory was 
unusually trivial

but Shostakovich had been unable 
to applaud the tyrant, a politically 
required duty, if not even officially
commissioned, he could only put 
up surreptitiously pantomime, if  
he was to remain true to his 

which he did

his work was a call to arms for the 
beleaguered denizens of his 
oppressed society, spoken in a
locally decipherable musicacode

as such it is a historical document 

listen to Leonard Bernstein give 
further invaluable information on
the subject

R ! chard