Shostakovich’s seldom-encountered, darkly Mahlerian Fourth Symphony and Stravinsky’s exhilarating “Symphony of Psalms” make up this all-Russian program for the Seattle Symphony on June 2 and 4.
On Jan. 28, 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich woke up to read a sternly worded condemnation of his music in the official Soviet newspaper, Pravda.
Never mind that the work in question (his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”) happened to be thrillingly original and a huge box-office success. The Pravda article claimed the composer, 29, had made a splash because his music “tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois.”
The attack not only derailed Shostakovich’s career but, without exaggeration, his artistic choices going forward became a matter of life and death. Another false step, as far as Stalin’s thought police were concerned, might have resulted in a death sentence, or at least a trip to the gulag.
Shostakovich Symphony No. 4
7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 2, and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 4, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle, $36-$121. (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
The Symphony No. 4 was to be the next major public work Shostakovich would unveil. But at the last minute (in December 1936), the premiere was canceled — for reasons that are still debated. It was not performed in its complete form until 1961, well after Stalin’s death.
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The Fourth remains a relative rarity among the composer’s output of 15 symphonies. This week’s Seattle Symphony Orchestra program will be the first time the orchestra has played the work since April 1984, when Richard Buckley was on the podium.
“One of the strengths of the Fourth is its lack of familiar form, which is also what makes it problematic,” said SSO music director Ludovic Morlot in a recent phone conversation. Lasting about an hour, the symphony sandwiches a tiny scherzo between two massive outer movements that present their events in highly unusual ways.
The influence of Mahler — at the time, a figure still hardly known to the general public — is notably pervasive.
“It starts with a Mahlerian march and is based on the idea of rupture and collapse,” Morlot said. “And then you arrive at this intense ending, which seems incredibly prophetic. This is one of those pieces where I feel uncomfortable with applause at the end. You don’t want to be doing anything else after this music dies away.”
It’s also a work of extreme challenges — including a hair-raising chase of lightning speed for the strings — and calls for a dramatically expanded orchestra.
The extra wind and brass players suggested to Morlot the idea of coupling the Fourth with one of the towering masterpieces of the last century by Shostakovich’s exiled fellow Russian, Igor Stravinsky: the “Symphony of Psalms,” which also calls for an expansion of those sections of the orchestra.
For Morlot, pairing this choral symphony from 1930 with the instrumental Shostakovich symphony establishes polar opposites of hope and despair: “There’s a longing for salvation in Stravinsky’s setting of the Psalms that contrasts with this sense of fearing death in the Shostakovich.”
Shostakovich managed to resuscitate his reputation with the next symphony he introduced to the public: the Fifth, still among the most beloved symphonies of the 20th century. But for that work, he opted to take a more obviously populist path.
The Fourth is imbued with the spirit of Shostakovich’s earlier period of experimentalism. He’d already written the bulk of the score by the time of the Pravda attack.
According to Elena Dubinets, SSO’s vice president of artistic planning and an internationally recognized authority on Shostakovich, the Fourth may even represent “his most ambitious and controversial work.”
Dubinets said the score stands apart as “radically different from anything else in that period in terms of its emotional content, style, language and structure. It is much darker, more mysterious and powerful than virtually anything else Shostakovich ever wrote. He thought about this symphony as his own credo.”