Mark Laporta on Shostakovich: Symphonies 1 and 15

Is Shostakovich’s biography more famous than his music? It seems so, especially now, when awareness of what’s what in Western art music is of so little concern to so many millions.

That he lived under unimaginable duress is well-documented. That he made the necessary compromises to save his life and that of his family is also on record. And that’s as it should be. Even the most rabid idealist can’t say with a straight face that a musical style is more important than a human life.. 

Of course, Shostakovich could’ve gone into another line of work and written for the desk drawer. But judging from his phenomenally precocious first symphony, completed at age 19, it’s hard to imagine him turning his back on his early ambitions. 

Besides, without our hindsight, would it seem likely that Russia’s state-sponsored suppression of artistic freedom would persist as long as it did? Unfortunately, the composer’s gamble that Soviet ideology would play itself out didn’t pay off in his lifetime. 

That part of his biography is astonishing enough. But from our perspective, it’s hard to imagine that a national government would find any type of art music dangerous to society. In 2019, a banned symphony is as absurd as a banned box of corn flakes. 

Sure, the composer’s satirical side was on display everywhere, and it’s easy to see why the original versions of “Lady Macbeth” and “The Nose” ruffled official feathers. On the other hand, it’s their plot outlines, not the absence of hummable tunes that makes them “scandalous.” 

But let me not stray into the folly of trying to impose logic on political ideology. Shostakovich’s anarchic spirit was considered a threat to “order,” so his government made an example of him. 

As a result, it’s now an impossible task to hear Shostakovich without becoming distracted. The temptation to distinguish between his intentions and his compromises is irresistible. Except, that is, in the two symphonies he wrote at opposite ends of his musical life. The 1st, a few years before the rise of Stalin and the 15th, about 20 years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As a demonstration of youthful genius, you’d have to look far and wide for a more astonishing example. While many conservatory students achieve paint-by-numbers facility, the emotional maturity of this work vaults it high above “technically correct.” Besides, the teenager’s command of form is not only sure but fresh and idiosyncratic, especially for 1925.

His deft use of unifying tags and mottos is merely the most obvious manifestation of this. But add to that the proportions of the movements and their elegant flow into each other, and you can get a glimpse of the potential this young man never had a chance to fulfill.

The reasons his artistic development was derailed have been analyzed, I suspect, in far more depth than his music. Worse, more than one observer has asserted that the composer’s only importance is to music sociology. 

But it should be obvious, from these two pieces, that he deserves a better mnemonic than “poster boy for Soviet oppression.” And while I can hardly claim in this short space to get to the heart of these two symphonies, let’s see what happens when we listen with the “rhetoricometer” switched off.

For starters, the two symphonies have many similarities. Each one begins with a natty motif, spelled out on a solo instrument. In Symphony 1, it’s the trumpet, with a cameo by the bassoon while in 15, it’s the flute with asides from the glockenspiel. 

In its first presentation, 15’s motto is extended into a cheery tune, but the tune’s first five notes take on a life of their own soon after. Both symphonies also bear the hallmarks of Liszt’s familiar thematic transformations. What was once tender can reappear as ferocious, comedic, yearning and vice versa, all up and down the emotional spectrum. 

Yet calling either work “Lisztian” would be inaccurate. Both symphonies are better made and more inventive than the older composer’s more casual efforts. With a few notable exceptions, Liszt’s tone poems, which nevertheless have an appeal of their own, are the work of a restless tinkerer. 

By contrast, Shostakovich shows a deeper and more facile command of musical form. And that’s aside from either symphony’s emotional intensity. Whatever else can be said of Shostakovich, he was clearly sitting on a volcano of emotion.

In either work, Shostakovich uses what I suppose could be called “standard” developmental methods. Yet he does so with such nonchalant grace that they sound as if he has invented them on the spot. The easy, propulsive drive of both opening movements deserves special notice, as one more musical effect much easier to aspire to than achieve. And this is not the least the case because the drive forward is always graceful, witty and genuinely surprising.

Like Symphony 1, the immediate development of the motto in 15 quickly takes on a sardonic tone, but heightened in the latter case by the intrusion of a parody of Rossini’s “William Tell” overture motto. I’ve read that this is supposed to be an evocation of childhood, but I hear it simply as a way for the composer to make his irony unmistakable. 

Abetting that is the way the return of the glockenspiel so deftly deflates the grandiloquent mood the music slips into here and there. As in Symphony 1, in 15 marching band music is also in for a heavy dose of jeering mockery. In 15 however, the “medicine” is stronger and the sarcasm more savage. 

In their openings, both works evoke the insouciant spirit of Dadaist mayhem more effectively than anyone since Satie. Far from a style, Dada is a state of mind and in these two movements, Shostakovich inhabits that state as its reining monarch.

In Symphony 1, the crackling piano obbligato that bursts into the second movement is a wonder, not only on its own terms, but due to its timing. And the surreal, isolated chords that sound at the end of that movement point to a fresh, uninhibited originality that was surely the first thing to go when Big Brother started turning the screws.

Symphony 15’s slow second movement features mournful brass and a cello solo that sounds unavoidably like a personal confession or philosophical summation. The “dissonant” chords that creep in later in the movement will have a role to play in the finale.

Though less extended, the oboe and cello solos in Symphony 1 find a more mature echo in 15. I suppose it’s too much to say that the solos in 15 answer the questions asked in the solos from 1, but on repeat listening, the thought may enter your mind.

The finale of Symphony 1 has a brisk, violent opening which fades into a tender central section. The tenderness lasts until the piano roils the waters again and the strings flair up. Then back to brilliant writing that never loses musical substance. The pacing of this movement alone is expertly handled, as it returns to a tender cello solo before switching gears one last time. But not, that is, without a passing reference to Rachmaninov. 

Already in this early work, Shostakovich demonstrates his mastery of “the slow build,” which may seem easier to pull off in a reasonably tonal idiom, but I certainly wouldn’t take up that challenge.

Not to be ignored, a main unifying element in both works is a body of recurrent rhythmic motifs. In 15 this unifying force is enhanced by the more extended percussion battery. Yet, as in every other aspect of either symphony, the recurring motifs insinuate themselves deftly and with a light touch. No foot-stomping folksiness and no “mad-as-Hell” explosions.

In 15, a lighter kind of scherzando movement follows the composer’s adagio. It features a slightly goofy violin tune that reminds me of nothing so much as a wise-cracking comic at an open mike. Fifteen’s finale, however, roves through a mix of moods, and creates the impression of the composer trying to collect his thoughts. 

I prefer to avoid a programmatic approach to music but, to my ear, both 1 and 15 really do roll out like narratives. Not, that is, in the Mahlerian sense of “here are the philosophical ramifications of my experience,” but a more intimate kind of confession. 

In any case, memory seems to shape a significant swath of this finale and it wouldn’t surprise me if someone more familiar with Shostakovich might hear bits of self-quotation here and there.

In the final measures of 15, a gradual fade-out under the spell of the glockenspiel, percussion and sustained strings reminds me, stupidly, of the more ethereal scenes from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” I guess that might be partly because 15, even more than 1, sounds more like the unfolding of a stage play than a symphony. Whether it’s the pacing, the ebb and flow of ideas, or simply the composer’s distinctive voice, the sense of having had a theatrical experience is indelible.

My affinity for these works surprises me, considering that most of the rest of Shostakovich leaves me bored and frustrated. I can only conclude that here, at opposite ends of his life, he had a chance to sing in his own voice.


Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His new novel, Probability Shadow, is published by Chickadee Prince Books, and is available  in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. Or listen to his musical compositions here.