The Symphony of Chaos and Terror

Don’t think.

If you must think, don’t write.

If you must write, don’t sign.

If you must sign, don’t be surprised.

-Soviet Proverb

Dmitri Shostakovich began his 4th Symphony during the madness of Soviet industrialization.  By the time he completed the work the composer was under Stalin’s thumb and his country drenched in blood.  This is the story of how Shostakovich’s 4th became a work of perilous political protest.


[Note: This article is written for musicians and non-musicians alike.  The YouTube video below is the Munich Philharmonic performing Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony, directed by the excellent Valery Gergiev.  Descriptions of the music in the article include time reference points in the video for the reader’s convenience.]



The excitement must have been palpable in the recital hall of the Moscow Conservatory on the 30th of December, 1961. The capacity audience had come to hear the premiere of the 4th Symphony by the youthful composer Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich. Oddly, the last premiere of a Shostakovich symphony was the 12th, called “1917” in dedication to Vladimir Ilych Lenin.   Although the 12th was well received officially by the Party and at subsequent performances for workers, “accessible”[1] is one of the kinder remarks about opus 112 to come from the West. More representative are: “diffuse. . . There are few points of interest,”[2] “a lower level of musical accomplishment,”[3] “empty and bombastic,”[4] and, “a crash dive into banality.”[5] Lev Lebedinsky, who was with the composer during rehearsals for the 12th, remembers Shostakovich’s own assessment: “It’s terrible.”[6]


Composer Dmitri Shostakovich around the time of composition.

By contrast, on that bitterly cold Moscow night in December of ’61 conductor Kirill Kondrashin gave the downbeat of the 4th Symphony unleashing a brutal and complex beast. The work was already legend: completed during the Great Terror right after the composer himself was censured, it was rehearsed ten times before being withdrawn, leaving a conspicuous absence on his opus list between the 3rd and 5th Symphonies for 25 years. The score was destroyed during the war and thought to be forever lost before a friend of Shostakovich, Levon Atovmyan, found the surviving orchestral parts and painstakingly recreated the score. It was not until Khrushchev’s Thaw that this “lost child” could have a public airing, and it is believed that composing the 12th Symphony for Lenin was part of a deal with the Party to have the 4th performed.[7]

The concert had a “shattering impression” on the audience.[8] The Newsweek correspondent present at the premiere wrote that the 4th Symphony “ranges from ear-shattering dissonance to tender lyricism. But its most distinguishing feature is the complete absence of the ‘folk’ schmaltz which Shostakovich has been dishing out ever since he fell in line and became the Kremlin’s favorite composer.”[9] Flora Litvinova wondered in her diary, “Why do Dmitri Dmitrievich’s later works lack those qualities of impetuosity, dynamic drive, contrasts of rhythm and color, tenderness and spikiness?”[10]

The answer lies in a statement by the composer’s son: “When you listen to the 4th, you feel the breath of his time.”[11]   The composer was the Soviet Union’s great, furtive diarist, who once said, “The majority of my symphonies are tombstones.”[12] The musical merits of this work are for another study. The purpose here is to discuss Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony as an historical document; the score, written in the musician’s code, describes the two distinct dramas of the Soviet thirties—industrialization and terror. I would like to suggest Shostakovich was purposefully writing a work of satire that then turned to protest as Stalin’s grip on the Soviet Union tightened.


The year 1928 marked the beginning of the first piatiletka, Five-Year Plan, a period of ambition and scope for which history offers no parallel. Stalin, who had used the charge of “super-industrializer” against his chief political opponent Leon Trotsky in 1926 for his plans to build hydro-electric dams,[13] now embarked on a plan of industrialization that would seek 20% growth every year for five straight years; in the best year on record, the United States had only seen 8.7% growth.


“Fulfill the plan of great labor.” Soviet propaganda poster, Gustav Klutsis, 1930.

The plan was a showpiece, a part of the myth of Soviet superiority over the depressed West, particularly of the United States, of which the USSR was to be the new-and-improved version. The targets of the plan included a 250% increase in steel production, a 300% increase in pig iron, an over 400% increase in kilowatt hours of electricity[14]; there was to be a quadrupling of machine production and all farms were to be collectivized.[15]

Gigantomania is the term-of-art applied to the first and second Five-Year Plans by the economist Nicholai Basili, who chronicled twenty years of Soviet power in his book Russia Under Soviet Rule. Every plant had to be “bigger than the greatest in the world,” regardless of whether or not such massive projects made any economic sense, as with the agricultural machinery plant in Rostov-on-Don which, “contrary to all considerations of economy, to all harmony and to all rational system, the buildings and workshops were scattered over a surface of 650 acres.”[16]

There was no area of Soviet life unaffected by this pathology of vastness. The classic example is that of Magnitogorsk, a massive steel works modeled on those of Gary, Indiana, at that time the world’s largest steel producing center. The latest blast furnaces in the United States had a volume of 1,000 cubic meters; the Soviet version would have a 1,100 cubic meter volume.[17] Gary produced 3.4 million tons of steel per year; the Soviet goal for Magnitogorsk was 4 million tons, and authorities were quick to point out that the works in Gary took 12 years to build whereas the Soviets were erecting Magnitogorsk on virgin soil in only two and a half years, during which time it was the “biggest construction camp on earth.”[18]

In the northern Caucasus there was the “Giant” state farm, a landholding the size of Rhode Island that took six hours to cross in a railroad car going 18 miles per hour.[19] Of course, peasants did not ride trains, which meant that in some cases employees had only enough time to walk to their places of duty before having to begin walking home again in order to get there by dark.[20]

In Azbest, the headquarters of the Soviet Asbestos Trust, two separate mines were in operation until the arrival of an American engineer who suggested making a huge cut that would combine the two into “far and away the largest asbestos open-cut mine in the world.”[21] The pit would be two miles in diameter and it was projected that the production at this facility in 1933 would be twice the world production of 1928.

The hyperbole reached its peak at the Cheliabinsk tractor factory, at the time of its construction the Soviet’s largest; its assembly building had the greatest area of any building in the world, covering the space of 26 acres and “could contain twenty-one football fields with enough room left over for dressing-rooms for the players.”[22] In addition, the foundry could contain 14 football fields and the forge another nine.

This contagion struck Moscow as well where “everywhere scaffolding shrouded half-built skyscrapers and houses. In every quarter of the city the earth shook with the ringing of hammers, the banging, bumping, and screeching of single-bucket excavators, concrete mixers and machines that turned out mortar. Thousands of men worked day and night with almost fanatical diligence.”[23]

One of the main foci of this construction was the Moscow Metro, intended to be the best and most expensive on earth. It became a repository for acres of marble and granite, tons of bronze and mahogany, and was adorned with mosaics, sculptures, and inlaid stone murals. No expense was spared. The year the metro opened, 1934, 350 million rubles were spent, 50 million rubles more than was devoted to consumer goods for the entire Soviet Union during the whole of the First Five-Year Plan.[24]  And of course, there were the plans for the Palace of Soviets, to be 315 meters tall by itself and topped with a 100-meter statue of Lenin, more than twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty (46 meters).


A drawing of the never-completed Palace of Soviets.  The Lenin statue on top was intended to be more than twice the size of the Statue of Liberty.  Illustration from the book Stalinist Architecture.

Even failures to meet quotas were impressive. The Don Basin coal-mines increased production by 7,000,000 tons from 1929 to 1930 to the greatest tonnage Russia had ever produced—and was disciplined by the party for failing to meet its quota.

Naturally, this immensity extracted a huge toll on the population. Besides the six million peasants who died in the countryside from the grain collection that fueled Stalin’s industrial plans, thousands died in construction sites all around the Soviet Union. Contrary to the Bolshevik’s own program, full night shifts were instituted at many factories and other economic concerns to increase output.[25] In the tunnels of the future Moscow Metro “[Khrushchev] and Moscow Mayor Nikolai Bulganin drove the more than seventy thousand workers mercilessly, demanding that they work 48 hours without respite and ignoring engineers’ warnings that tunnels or the buildings above them would collapse. Terrible accidents occurred, including underground fires and floods, only to be portrayed in fevered accounts of the project as instances of heroism in service to the great cause.”[26]

John Scott, an American working on the construction of Magnitogorsk, describes inexperienced workers, peasants just off the fields, falling to their deaths from atop steel furnaces due to exhaustion, hunger, and little safety equipment. He wrote, “I would wager that Russia’s battle of ferrous metallurgy alone involved more casualties than the battle of the Marne.”[27]

Contemporary accounts of the period often used the language of warfare. The journalist H.R. Knickerbocker toured more than a dozen Soviet cities and leaves us this description:

All these were salients in the war for industrialization. In all these, to a varying but always impressive degree, I found an atmosphere of militant struggle—a nation under arms living effectively under martial law, and subsisting on the short rations of a beleaguered State. It is a war that, according to the Plan, will come in October 1933 not to an end but to a brief moment of stocktaking. That year will mark the formal close of the first period of the most gigantic economic project in history—an attempt overnight to industrialize the most backward land in Europe, to make of vast Russia a self-contained entity, an impregnable fortress for Communism. The officers in the war are the 1,300,000 members of the Communist Party. The soldiers are the entire population. The chief weapon is 86 million rubles of capital investment.[28]

Shostakovich’s contribution to this zeitgeist was a symphony of Siberian scale. To begin with, the scoring—the instruments used—is huge; compared to a standard orchestra, he doubled almost all of the woodwinds and brass and used a greatly expanded percussion section including two harps, six timpani, a gong, tambourine, castanets, celesta, bass drum, snare drum, woodblock, and glockenspiel.

The first movement is 1,045 measures long (about 28 minutes) and of those 60% are played forte (ƒ, loud) or louder (fortissimo, very loud [ƒƒ], fortississimo [ƒƒƒ], fortissississimo [ƒƒƒƒ]). Twice he used the marking ƒƒƒƒƒ (very, very, very, very loud), possibly the initial appearance of this dynamic marking in printed music and thereby pushing the orchestra beyond its previously recognized limits of extremity. Of his fifteen symphonies, it is shorter in length only to his 7th, which is one movement longer. Maxim Shostakovich says the work has “the presence of war.”[29]; perhaps the 4th, not the 7th, was the first of Shostakovich’s war symphonies.


Shostakovich used five fs twice in the 4th, pushing the orchestra beyond the limits of what was previously thought to be the extreme.

The 4th Symphony begins [0:00:42 on the YouTube video at the top of this article] with all the woodwinds playing a piercing fortissimo (very loud, ƒƒ) A note followed immediately by eight French horns and all the strings playing an equally loud and grievously dissonant A-C-D flat chord that conjures the impression of a distorted, angry factory whistle. Shortly thereafter the percussion section enters with a single ƒƒƒ shot, announcing the start of a relentless, mordant march. For the next 27 measures almost every note is accented on top of the already very loud (ƒƒ) dynamic. Are these the strides of the Great Soviet People moving onward into history or the footfalls of an arrant regime crushing the bodies of the people it was established to protect?

The work is described as being in the key of C minor (a key signature with three flats) although there is no key signature written into the score. In truth, no key signature could have contained this monster, yet the exclusion of a key signature gave the composer more and more opportunities to darken the page with accidentals, not unlike the pages of the party organ Pravda replete of the great successes of the Soviet People, but also with lurid tales of wreckers, saboteurs and spies.


A sample of a study score from the 4th Symphony.  The sheet was nearly blackened by the notes, accidentals, and accents, or “greater than” symbols.

It is difficult to overstate just how much ink was devoted to the composition of this work; for page after page of the first movement, the score is nearly black. Almost every note has an accent (>), thereby filling the page with hundreds of “greater than” symbols that the composer drew individually with pen and ink. In the published edition and in performance the affect is that of mass production, like the stamping of a steel press, drawing an interesting parallel with one of Shostakovich’s contemporaries. In 1934 the sculptress Vera Mukhina created a 25-meter (80 feet) high statue called Worker and the Collective Farm Girl (pictured at the top of this article and below) to top the Soviet Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Created from 65 laminated stainless steel plates, its graceful, forward-moving form is the perfect emblem for a mighty industrial power. Despite its manufactured, industrial appearance, however, it was assembled the old fashioned way: Mukhina shaped each individual plate by pounding it on a carved wooden frame and then painstakingly welded them all together.


Worker and the Collective Farm Girl, by Vera Mukhina.  Photo by Samuel L. Scheib.

In the first minute of the madcap presto section [0:15:50], the first violin section has over 800 notes (about 13 notes per second!) to play as the violas, second violin, and cello are successively added to the frenetic pace. This section culminates in a stampede, the bass drum, timpani, snare drum and woodblock pounding the same rhythm until the whole orchestra performs a sforzando—very, very loud (ƒƒƒ), then suddenly piano with a crescendo back to ƒƒƒ—four times. Shostakovich and Basily seem to be describing the same thing:

People went dizzy with figures. They were intoxicated by the sight of the gigantic industrial building under construction. They visualized millions of workers toiling ceaselessly, day and night, in an atmosphere of warlike nervousness, intensified by skillful propaganda. . . People lost all sense of proportion. In their eyes ‘it sufficed to will,’ in order that industrial production, obeying the magician’s wand, would go on swelling every year by 100, 200, 300, 400 percent, and even more.[30]

This type of orchestration was entirely out of character for a man who was able to create great effects with few instruments. He was known, in the words of the conductor Rudolph Barshai, for “dealing with big ideas with minimum elements: this was an important part of Shostakovich’s instrumentation. He asked me many times: ‘Could one live without any of the instruments? If you think so, just throw it away – no mercy!’”[31]

Robert Dearling seems to be missing the point when he writes, “It must be admitted that effects just as striking might have been made with greater self-restraint and more modest scoring—a fact that even the composer must have realized, for thereafter greater economy enter his composing.”[32] [emphasis added]. Yes, this economy was certainly used afterward, but also with the three symphonies preceding the 4th.

Shostakovich excelled in orchestration. He was critical of composers like Musorgsky and Scriabin whom he viewed as less skilled in that area, and was scornful of Prokofiev for allowing others to orchestrate his own compositions.[33] Shostakovich, by contrast, composed his works in full score—without writing a piano reduction first—one measure at a time. Edison Denisov went to visit the composer at his dacha (summer house) and found him orchestrating all of Rimsky-Korsakov’s romances and then throwing each score in the trash after completing it. He was having trouble composing and was orchestrating just to keep himself busy.[34] In light of the atmosphere in which he was composing, it seems highly unlikely that this international phenomenon would have made the “mistake” of using so many instruments in his orchestra. The only other conclusion is that he did so on purpose.

It is interesting to note that to date [2006], no one to this author’s knowledge has observed this symphony is a work of satire, a genre in which Shostakovich was already well established by the early 1930s. He had written the music for Meyerhold’s production of The Bedbug and composed an opera from Gogol’s The Nose. Working amid a steady stream of headlines in Pravda covering both the great industrial successes as well as the trials of wreckers being blamed for the interruptions in supplies, he offered satirical hints in the subtitles “A Rare Case of Mass Hysteria,” “Touching Coalition of Classes, Slightly Fraudulent,” and “General Exposure” in his 1930 ballet The Golden Age.[35] The year 1933 found him composing the music for a full-length animated version of Pushkin’s Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Blockhead. He enjoyed the satirical theme and grotesque characterizations so much that he continued working on the project after the film’s contract had been cancelled.[36]

Of course, the finest example of Shostakovich’s satirical abilities come in a work he wrote “for the desk” in 1948 during Andrei Zhdanov’s anti-formalist campaign. The musical satire Rayok appeared, like his Testimony, after the composer’s death and is a warehouse of his rapier wit. In a parody of a central committee meeting, he portrays I.V. Stalin, A.A. Zhdanov, and D.T. Shepilov as I.V. Yedinitsa, A.A. Dvoikin, and D.T. Troikin, which reflect both the relative ranking of these three leaders (No. 1 (“odin”), No. 2 (“dva”) and No. 3 (“tri”)) and three worst school grades (“yedinitsa,” “dvoika,” and “troika” are equivalent to F, D and C).[37]

Shostakovich is well known to have written his works quickly but to have composed in his head for a very long time, thus making it difficult to know exactly when he truly began composing a work. In 1932 he worked on the score for Counterplan, a film on the struggle of factory workers to fulfill their part of the Five Year Plan. Mirroring its subject, the crew was under severe time constraints in order to finish the film in time for the 15th anniversary of the Revolution. With his own body then incorporated into the nation’s industrial effort it is entirely plausible that this was the genesis of the 4th Symphony.

While the first movement is characterized by whip-lashing changes in character, tempi, and dynamics, the second movement [starts 0:29:11] is shorter and more focused, though hardly rosier in temperament. The A-B-A-B-A form repeats the material of the first theme (A) twice and the second theme (B) once. A unifying theme often repeated and the proximity to the classical Rondo form (A-B-C-B-A) that Beethoven so loved to employ provides a brief respite from the schizophrenic quality of the rest of the work.

The third movement begins [0:37:08] as a largo (a very slow tempo), the timpani and contrabassoon conveying the gait of a large beast. After the 4th “step” this impression is furthered as the bassoon—clown of the orchestra—begins a solo. After a minute of this the oboe [0:37:56] plays a three-note motive (C-F-B natural) that is often repeated in the coda. Like the first movement, the middle section of the third movement is capricious, moving in and out of major and minor keys, from delicate waltzes to heavy footfalls. The next significant development is a very loud fanfare that produces a striking contrast to the earlier material [0:39:39]. With this wall of sound, Shostakovich establishes the third movement as a compliment to the first, Scylla and Charybdis, nearly identical in length, lording over the middle movement. The climax of the third movement starts sounding victorious, but with a crash of the cymbals it sours as the horns begin to wail. With one last piercing iteration of the fanfare, amid the crash of cymbals and the roll of the bass drums, the composer signals his initiation to the terror.


Music is ethereal and therefore was spared some of the vagaries of Socialist Realism, the official, if nebulous, standard for the arts of the time. Much ink has been dedicated to this abstruse concept, but this author agrees with Ian MacDonald who asserts that “Socialist Realism is simply art useful for building Socialism, Formalism art useless for it,” or more to the point, art the powers-that-be like are the former, art they do not like the latter.[38]

After the 1932 state takeover of the arts, the visual arts and literature had, by their very natures, the misfortune of leaving a visible/written record that could be compared with a list of acceptable traits under the strictures of sotsrealism. The early thirties were the years of the five-year-plan novels and realist paintings that reflected Stalin’s view of reality: “Life has become merrier, comrades. Life has become better.”[39] Yuri Pimenov’s orthodox and very safe painting The New Moscow reveals none of the turmoil and terror of 1937 Russia as a girl drives, top down, in her convertible automobile through the streets of the capital just after a spring rainstorm. Pimenov had already destroyed all of his pre-Stalin paintings by this point.[40]


Yuri Pimenov’s painting The New Moscow shows none of the turmoil of 1930s Moscow. By 1937 he had already destroyed his pre-Stalin paintings.

Deviations from accepted norms were easily and often punished. Robert Conquest asserts that within the cultural milieu writers suffered the most. Of the 700 writers who attended the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934 approximately 50 survived to attend the second in 1954.[41]

In the same year the government took control over the other arts, 1932, the Union of Soviet Composers was formed “to provide a non-partisan, professional organization for composers and writers on music.”[42]  Musicians benefited immeasurably from having a group of musical illiterates in the Kremlin so that in the early 1930s there was no model for the Socialist Realist symphony, no “directive for triumphant, major-key codas, no stipulation (from anyone other than from composers themselves) as regards the employment of a text or mass song in a symphonic work.”[43] As late as 1933 Nikolai Myaskovsky’s 13th Symphony “was labeled ‘a symphony of torments’ and was bestowed with adjectives such as ‘dark, gloomy, nervously expressive, and in places weighed down by depression,’”[44] and yet no sanctions were taken against him. “Music,” said Ilya Ehrenburg, “has a great advantage: without mentioning anything, it can say everything.” Shostakovich’s son, conductor Maxim Shostakovich, agrees saying: “Music is abstract. It has no words. Therefore, composers are in a little easier position under totalitarian governments.”[45]

It was not until the relatively late date of March 1935, that the repression of Soviet music began in earnest with the declaration in the paper Krasnaya Gazeta of Gavriil Popov’s 1st Symphony as a work of formalism having “ideals foreign to the Soviet order.”[46]   This work was debated for over a year before its performance, and its “polyrythms,” “highly developed polyphony,” and “metric instability” made it ripe for the charge of being “hostile to our classes.”[47]

Repression, although real enough in the sense of loss of work and a rising fear, did not hit musicians with the same destructive force as it did other arts. The composer Mosolov is the only composer known to have spent time in the camps (he got eight years) and Nikolai Zhilaev, a musicologist, was arrested and executed in 1937, soon after Marshall Tuckashevsky. Those events, however, were still in the future.[48]

In 1935, given the international success of his opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtensk District, Shostakovich seems to have been in a battling mood. Enemies in the Composer’s Union were already criticizing him for the opera and he responded to them in the pages of the paper Izvestia, writing “I have never been a formalist and never shall be. To malign a work as Formalist on the grounds that its form and meaning is not instantly apparent is to be inexcusably superficial.”[49] That he could still be published in this party organ shows how much weight his name carried. In this atmosphere, and from a position of relative strength, Shostakovich began writing out the 4th Symphony while on a goodwill tour to Turkey that then continued to locales in Russia.

During a stop in Archangelsk on 28 January 1936, Shostakovich saw an early edition of Pravda, on page three of which appeared possibly the most famous review in music history. Stalin had attended a performance of the opera and it is generally held that he himself wrote the review “Sumbur Vmesto Muzyki” (“Muddle Instead of Music”). From the pen of the vozhd (leader), here are excerpts from the quintessential example of Soviet Newspeak:


A sample of the review, almost certainly written by Stalin, of Lady MacBeth, in Pravda, 1936.  Musicians, painters, poets, teachers, and scientists were all warned in the article.

The listener is flabbergasted from the first minute by a deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sound. Broken melodies, embryos of musical phrases drown, emerge, only to disappear anew in the din, the grinding and the screeching. . . This music is intentionally written to be topsy-turvy in order not to resemble classical opera music, to have nothing in common with the symphonic sound, with simple, accessible music. . . Here we have “leftist” confusion instead of natural, human music . . . The danger of this direction in Soviet music is clear. Leftist distortion in opera grows from the same source as leftist distortion in painting, poetry, teaching, and science. Petty-bourgeois innovations lead to a break with real art, real science and real literature . . . all this is coarse, primitive and vulgar. The music quacks, grunts and growls, and suffocates itself, in order to express the amatory scenes as naturalistically as possible.[50] [translation by the author]

Ironically, this now maligned work is the very same one that in 1934 was hailed as a “major achievement of socialist construction; such an opera ‘could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best traditions of Soviet culture.’”[51] This illustrates how quickly the Party’s grip on music had tightened.

To be publicly condemned by Stalin was tantamount to a death sentence. In an instant Shostakovich went from being a “cosseted piece of Soviet property to an anathematized outcast—and this at a time when outcasts were being packed off to Siberia in scores of thousands every month. When, a week later, Pravda published a second article, “Balletic Falsity,” attacking [Shostakovich’s ballet] Limpid Stream in similar terms, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Shostakovich was about to ‘disappear.’”[52] Shostakovich’s life was marked by extreme isolation; people crossed the street to avoid him and of his friends only the composer Vissarion Shebalin dared regularly to visit him. His income dropped precipitously as commissions and performances dried up, and as he had as a child he found himself living once again in debt.[53] He retreated to safer activities, namely film scoring, reworking his 1931 score for Golden Mountains, and then receiving commissions for Maxim’s Return, and Volochayevsky Days.  Even this sanctuary, however, proved short lived.

The December, 1934 assassination of the popular Leningrad party boss, Sergei Kirov, was the first of Stalin’s political killings and the point of origin for the purges that would follow. Like a stone thrown into still waters, the purge at first only affected those with dubious “connections” to the murder and the highest ranks of the old Bolsheviks, but steadily progressed outward until, by 1938, “virtually . . . every other family in the country on average must have had one of its members in jail.”[54] As previously mentioned, artists and writers were already well regulated by the regime; with the Muddle article “painting, poetry, teaching, and science” were specifically put on notice. But by the winter of 1936-37, the ripples spread to the sacrosanct film industry when the leading directors Dovzhenko and Eisenstein (of The Battleship Potemkin [1925] fame) were named as saboteurs. If these men were not safe then no one was.[55]

There was no need for Shostakovich to complete the 4th Symphony. The most cautious course would have been to destroy the existing score and compose a new 4th. It would have been remarkable enough had he finished what was already a wildly ambitious score and placed it in his desk. It is a testament to his courage that he not only completed it, perhaps risking later discovery by the security organs, but that he did so with such obvious references to the growing terror. Only a messianic fervor could have then possessed him to run the work through ten rehearsals while rumors flew around Moscow that the new work was riddled with formalism.

The 4th Symphony has two codas, the contents of which are so strikingly different from the material that precedes them that they were both almost certainly written ex post facto. The second movement, described above as largely being written in the classical rondo style, concludes with a pulsing little coda dominated by the clickety-clack of the percussion section [0:36:36].

Shostakovich used this technique in only one other symphony, the 15th. Much is telling in this work, the last of Shostakovich’s symphonies, written at a time when he was obsessed with death (when arranging the premiere of his 14th Symphony, his preferred soprano was not immediately available to sing the vocal part. Rudolph Barshai, the conductor, asked if Shostakovich wanted to put off the rehearsal until Vishnevskaya was could perform. “No, no, I don’t want to wait, I’m afraid I’ll die soon, and I want to hear my work. I was afraid that I wouldn’t live to finish the Symphony, but I managed in time, I managed in time”[56]).

The first movement of the 15th, called “Toy Store,”[57] is playful, often—if incongruously—quoting the main theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The title takes on sinister undertones when one considers that Moscow’s largest toy store in Shostakovich’s day had been located across the street from the dreaded Lubianka Prison. The second movement is based on a dirge from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. Then, at the end of the last movement, is a coda. The strings play a C major chord for a solid 40 measures while the castanets, woodblock, tom-toms, and triangle tap out a syncopated, dance-like rhythm while the xylophone and piccolo recap earlier material. The impression of bones rattling is confirmed by the death rattle in the last few measures.

The percussive material in these two symphonies is linked by instrumentation and placement, but the coda in the 2nd movement of the 4th Symphony is different in its feel. It is rhythmically more regular, reflecting the inner workings of a large clock. At this time, Shostakovich was leaving the house each day with a small packet of soap and a toothbrush and sleeping with a bag packed in the event he was taken.[58] Portraying the ticking of a clock is an appropriate leitmotif for a man who awaited execution for much of his life.[59] The conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky has another insightful view: “For me, and I think for Shostakovich, the association is prisoners tapping out messages to one another on the hot-water pipes in jail.”[60]

Shostakovich’s sharpest protest is reserved for the second coda. The climax of the symphony comes about 18 minutes into the third—last—movement of the 4th Symphony with the cello and bass playing an ostinato—a repeated bass pattern—with the violins and violas humming slightly above [0:55:33]. Suddenly, like the sun peaking through clouds, the first violin plays a high G, completing a C major chord (the so-called naïve C) [0:56:02], a brief glimpse at a shining future. The strings stop and there is one beat of rest [0:56:20] before the timpani and bass drum enter quietly, quickly gaining steam before an explosion of brass and cymbals, loud, bold and dissonant. The music snowballs forward until this massive orchestra plays tutti (all parts together) for the first time in this movement, and that in a full-throated ƒƒƒ.

The listener feels almost “dizzy with success,” Stalin’s euphemism for the excesses of collectivization.[61] Over the rhythmic patterns played by the rest of the orchestra the horns are heard sustaining long notes in either a triumphant call or a plaintive wail. Finally, the fanfare is played one last time [0:58:30], a screaming evocation of tension that pleads for a cadential resolution, but instead gets a crash of symbols and percussion which diminish into the growl of the bass woodwinds and the persistent, quiet pulsing of the bass and harp.

This is the crux of the story. The greatness of this work is not predicated on its size and scale. There is certainly the element of satire in its bombast, but that might not have raised the ire of the authorities. Yet here in the coda the composer’s intentions are laid bare; the harsh realities of the Soviet Thirties became the stark, immediate fears of a composer whose fame was no longer his aegis, but his albatross. The music evokes a man coming out of a violent thunderstorm and into a cold, empty room to shiver. Can the composer be rendering anything but the moment when he read Pravda on a train platform near the Arctic Circle?  The oft-repeated three-note lament returns, lonely as a fallen tree in a field of driven snow [0:58:57]. “Some of these thoughts” he said, “you can find, if you wish, in my 4th Symphony. In the last pages, it’s all set out rather precisely.”[62] Lest there be any confusion as to Shostakovich’s design, the thumping of the basses unmistakably morphs into a heartbeat [0:59:42] which continues unabated for the rest of the coda. The final instruction to the orchestra is morendo, dying.

The Pravda article noted that if the composer did not change his ways, “things could end badly.” After this overt threat Stalin and his coterie must have been watching for Shostakovich’s next move; since the performance of earlier works had largely been banned the prohibition must have been lifted in order to see if the composer had repented. Although not a great fan of high culture, Stalin’s love of film is well documented and he must have been aware of the propaganda value of the composer’s film scores even if he had not heard his earlier symphonic works (for example, the theme song from the aforementioned film Counterplan was an enormous hit, the tune being sung by millions around the Soviet Union[63]). A man as intelligent and perceptive as Shostakovich must have understood that this symphony, far and away the most ambitious and complex he ever composed, fell far from the tree of Socialist Realism and, in the charged and very dangerous political atmosphere of late 1936, Shostakovich exhibited what can only be described as missionary zeal in advancing this work.

In May 1936 on the occasion of a visit by the conductor Otto Klemperer, Ivan Sollertinsky, Fritz Stiedry (who had premiered the much maligned Lady MacBeth) and others met with Shostakovich at his flat on the very day the composer’s first child Galya was born and listened to him play the newly completed 4th Symphony on the piano. In the excitement of the day the performance made a considerable impression on the two conductors and both pledged to be the first to perform it, Stiedry in the Soviet Union and Klemperer in South America.

The symphony must have sounded far more portentous under Stiedry’s baton when rehearsals began in the fall than it had in Shostakovich’s home back in May. The ripples emanating from the Kirov murder had grown; initially, four thousand Leningraders were arrested. This wave of arrests lead to further arrests. The first trial of the high-ranking party members Zinoviev and Kamenev immediately after Kirov’s assassination had concluded only with their censure and removal from the party. But by August 1936 Stalin had at last arrived at a locus of control that would allow him to liquidate the men who had made the Revolution. After a show trial that month, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Evdokimov, Smirnov, and twelve other Old Bolsheviks were shot, a clear signal that the terror was unbound and limitless.   Indeed, it is worth recalling that in April 1935 Stalin extended the death penalty to children as young as twelve.

Unsurprisingly, the rehearsals for the 4th Symphony did not go well. It is ironic that Stiedry had himself fled from Nazi oppression in Germany only now to find himself in another cauldron, conducting a devilishly complex work of formalism by an “enemy of the people” at a time when people were being “taken” for far less than that; the musicians in the orchestra too were nervous about the performance, doubtless for the same reasons.[64]  In December, after ten rehearsals, the director of the Leningrad Philharmonic took the composer into his office and convinced or otherwise ordered him to withdraw the work.

It had been almost a year since the Pravda attack on the composer. By the following spring Shostakovich’s uncle and brother-in-law were arrested, his sister exiled to Central Asia, and his mother-in-law sent to a labor camp. Among his acquaintances, the author of the text of “Song of the Counterplan” was taken, as was the librettist for The Limpid Stream. In May Marshall Tukhachevsky, widely considered the best military mind in Europe, was arrested; this music-lover who had interceded on the composer’s behalf after “Muddle” was tried and shot in June along with a large compliment of other high-ranking officers.

In reply to a question about which of his symphonies he liked best, Shostakovich replied that, like his children, he loved them all the same, but maybe a bit more for the ones that suffered more. His final act of defiance in defense of his long-suffering 4th took place on 21 November 1937, the premier of his next symphony. In more modest scoring, the composer once again documented the horrors of the Terror, only this time he shrewdly capped it with a somewhat victorious finale. There in the hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic during the bitter, mournful largo the audience wept quietly for disappeared loved ones whose names could not be spoken, much less memorialized. When the orchestra finished, the audience leapt to its feet and roared its approval. The applause continued for so long that there was a subsequent investigation into whether or not the composer had rigged the audience to ensure its success.

By not calling his 5th Symphony the 4th, Shostakovich tacitly acknowledged the existence of the work. This bold and brilliant composition, begun as a satire on the cult of industrialization and ended in naked fear, was the Terror personified: persecuted, exiled, unmentioned and ultimately rehabilitated long after Stalin’s death. In the Moscow Conservatory, miles from the hall where it was stillborn twenty-five years before, this anabiotic symphony, the composer’s wordless polemic against the state, had the last word.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the DSCH Journal, No. 25 July 2006.dsch-journal

If you enjoyed this article please read, review, and recommend my novels:

Departure Day

The Wandering: Departure Day Book II

Ciphers: Departure Day Book III

Eisodus: Departure Day Book IV


Works Cited

[1] American Record Guide, “Overview: Shostakovich,” 60 (March/April), 2, p. 64.

[2] Norman Kay, Shostakovich (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 56.

[3] The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1st ed., s.v “Shostakovich, Dmitri..”

[4] Robert Dearling, “The First Twelve Symphonies: portrait of the artist as citizen-composer,” in Shostakovich: the Man and his Music, Christopher Norris (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982), 78.

[5] Time, “The Two Dmitrys,” 14 September 1962, p. 67.

[6] Lev Lebedinsky, quoted in Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 347.

7 Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), 347.

[8] Wilson, 348.

[9] Newsweek, “Stalin Was Wrong,” 15 January 1962, 72.

[10] Wilson, 348.

[11] Maxim Shostakovich, “Notes on My Father,” DSCH Journal no. 4 (winter) 1995, p. 19.

[12] Dmitri, Shostakovich, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, and ed. Solomon Volkov (NewYork: Harper and Row, 1979), 156.

[13] Allan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (New York: Knopf, 1991), 300.

[14] Bullock, 301.

[15] H. R. Knickerbocker, “The Soviet Five-Year Plan,” International Affairs 10, 4 (1931): 434.

[16] Nikolai Basili, Russia Under Soviet Rule: twenty years of Bolshevik experiment (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1938), 312.

[17] John Scott, Behind the Urals: an American worker in Russia’s city of steel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 271.

[18] Knickerbocker, 442.

[19] Knickerbocker, 444.

[20] Basily, 313.

[21] Knickerbocker 439.

[22] ibid 443

[23] Oscar Maria Graf quoted in William Taubman, Krushchev: the man and his era (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 90.

[24] Taubman, 94.

[25] Basily, 258.

[26] ibid, 94.

[27] Scott, 5.

[28] Knickerbocker, 434.

[29] Maxim Shostakovich, 19.

[30] Basily, 263.

[31] Barshai, Rudolph, “Shostakovich Interpreters II” Interview with Rudolph Barshai.” DSCH Journal, no. 17 (July) 2002.

[32] Dearling, 56.

[33] Dmitri Shostakovich, 28, 37, 40, 227

[34] Wilson, 302. see also Dmitri Shostakovich, 218.

[35] Ian MacDonald, The New Shostakovich (London: Fourth Estate, 1990), 74.

[36] Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 74.

[37] Allan B. Ho and Dmitry Feofanov, Shostakovich Reconsidered, (Exeter: Toccata Press, 1998), 277.

[38] MacDonald, 102.

[39] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: the court of the red tsar (New York: Knopf, 2004), 162.

[40] Alexei Tarkhanov and Sergei Kavtaradze, Stalinist Architecture (Singapore: Laurence King, 1992), 67.

[41] Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: a reassessment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 297.

[42] The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., s.v. “Russian Federation, (b) Art music of the Soviet Period.”

[43] Pauline Fairclough, “The ‘Perestroika’ of Soviet symphonism: Shostakovich in 1935,” Music and Letters, 83, 2 (2002), p. 259.

[44] The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., s.v. “Myaskovsky, Nikolay Yakovlevich.”

[45] Ho and Feofanov, 407.

[46] Larry Sitsky, Music of the Repressed Russian Avante-Garde (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994), 310.

[47] Ibid., 311.

[48] The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., s.v. “Russian Federation, (b) Art music of the Soviet Period.”

[49] Izvestia quoted in MacDonald, 102.

[50] Pravda, “Muddle Instead of Music,” 28 January 1936, p. 3.

[51] The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1st ed., s.v. “Shostakovich, Dmitri.”

[52] MacDonald, 103-104.

[53] Fay, 94.

[54] Conquest, 290.

[55] MacDonald, 119.

[56] Wilson, 415.

[57] Maxim Shostakovich, 22.

[58] Maxim Shostakovich, 19.

[59] Dmitri Shostakovich, 183.

[60] Ian MacDonald, “Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Opus 43 (1935-36)” DSCH Journal, 7, Summer (1997), p. 12.

[61] I. V. Stalin, “Dizzy with Success,” Pravda, 2 March 1930, p. 1.

[62] Dmitri Shostakovich, 119.

[63] Fay, 72.

[64] MacDonald (1997), 10.

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