Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 43 (1935—1936)
The content and fate of Symphony No 4 by Shostakovich (1906—1975) are equally tragic. The incredibly in-demand 29-year-old composer begins to write the symphony when all the country knows his music for films, his pieces are performed just as soon as he completes the score, and his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is staged to great acclaim in many theatres in the USSR and abroad. By the time the symphony is completed, its author is an object of a government attack in the infamous Pravda articles Muddle Instead of Music and Ballet Fraud, a victim of a hate campaign, and a man who sleeps in his clothes, prepared for a night arrest.
Shostakovich cancelled the premiere planned for the autumn of 1936 in the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonia under pressure from the management of the Leningrad Union of Composers. The legend has spread widely in music circles that the Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal conductor Fritz Stiedry failed to master the score.
It is, indeed, extraordinarily complex. Fascinated by the work of Gustav Mahler, the composer created a symphony for a gigantic orchestra. The three-part cycle of Symphony No 4 is more than one hour long and imbued in Mahlerian style with motley themes from dramatic recitatives to the most unbridled depictions of everyday life. The forms of the first and third movements can only conventionally be called sonatas: they are based on sharp contrasts and unpredictable twists. The emotional structure of the symphony can be described only in superlative terms: from ultimate tension through pitiless irony to deadly despair.
Symphony No 4 in C Minor was first performed on 30 December 1961 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. Since then, the history of interpreting and deciphering the Aesopian language of this colossal message has begun. Richard Taruskin, the foremost American scholar of Russian music, remarks: ‘Whether viewed internally or externally, whether in terms of their content or of their context, Shostakovich’s works are fraught with horrific subtexts that can never be ignored… We can never merely receive the messages; we are always implicated in their making, and therefore we can never be indifferent to them. It is never just Shostakovich. It is always Shostakovich and us.’