Premature antiformalism

May 22, 2014, 3:09 pm

I checked out a study score of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony from the local public library. It’s an early edition, maybe the first American one: © 1945, in the Leeds Music Corporation “Am-Rus Orchestra Scores series.” There’s an introduction by one Harold Sheldon, short but deeply bizarre.


Shostakovich, though well established as one of the principal composers of the Soviet Union, ran afoul of the censors with the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1936), unedifying in its story and violent in its musical language. His 4th Symphony was already in rehearsal when he was persuaded to withdraw it — it doesn’t have a story to criticize, but the music is vast in scope and magnificently aggressive, exhilarating today but hardly the populist affirmation the Party and its Leader were starting to be clear they were looking for. Shostakovich went back to the drawing board to write another symphony, and redeemed himself with the Fifth.

Amazingly, under the circumstances, it’s a great piece of music. It’s not exactly characteristic of Shostakovich, or even his best, but it’s singular, and memorable. This goes especially for the first movement, a wide-ranging span with a clear narrative coherence. There are two beautiful coups de théâtre consisting simply of the entry of a new instrument into the sound — the piano, about halfway through, heralding with a few dry knocks (low notes, una corda, not loud but unmissable) the shift of gears from slow to fast; and the celesta, four bars from the end, playing a chromatic scale from F# up to D. Of course these wouldn’t work so well if he hadn’t prepared them (that piano entrance picks up a motive that’s been in development for two minutes or so already), but that doesn’t detract from the shivers.

But Sheldon, introducing this remarkable piece to Americans, in 1945, doesn’t talk about its musical qualities, as I understand them, at all. Instead, he wants you to know that Shostakovich is back on the good path after his deviations from political correctness. In the midst of the war that was just ending, I could imagine soft-pedaling (so to speak) any criticism of the repressive Soviet state, but Sheldon goes well beyond this, echoing the state critics and seconding the official judgment that Shostakovich had gotten over his bout of “formalism”.

I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from this, other than perhaps “people are strange”, or that the Red Scare, however insane, didn’t conjure its bogeymen up from absolutely nothing. There doesn’t seem to be a copy of this artifact up on the web, so here it is in full.

[Introduction to Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5. New York: Leeds Music Corporation, 1945.]

The Fifth Symphony, Op. 47, was composed in 1938 and received its first American performance by the Cleveland Orchestra on October 30, 1941, Dr. Artur Rodzinski conducting. “The theme of my Symphony,” Shostakovich wrote, “is the stabilization of a personality. In the center of this composition — conceived lyrically from beginning to end — I saw a man with all his experiences. The finale resolves the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements into optimism and the joy of living.”

The Soviet critic Khubov, writing in the Sovetskaya Muzika in March 1938, characterized the Fifth as “Shostakovich’s first appearance as an avowed artist-realist,” and his “first address to a broad audience in clear, simple and expressive language, and not to a narrow circle.”

Frankly autobiographical, the Symphony is Shostakovich’s reaction to the formalism which brought sharp critical disapproval of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It was in January 1936 that Pravda appeared with the now historical article entitled “Muddle instead of Music.” Shostakovich was taken to task for deliberate discordance, music that had no memorability, absence of strong and simple feeling, and a desire to appeal to formalists who had lost all healthy tastes. As is well-known, these critical views were endorsed by Shostakovich’s colleagues in the Union of Soviet Composers. “Shostakovich took the criticism of his formalism quite seriously,” according to Soviet critic Khubov. “For two years he worked stubbornly at a new creative development of gifts….Recognizing the impossibility of any such growth unless he abandoned his formalism, and aware of the danger of a superficial ‘rebuilding,’ Shostakovich chose the line of greatest resistance: that of organically overcoming his formalistic errors by intense internal struggles.”

The result of this searching analysis was the Fifth Symphony. Russian critics see in the first movement much self-questioning as well as memories of childhood. The second movement has been described as “an ironic smile over the irrevocable past.” The third, which the composer reported he wrote in three days, is filled with tears and suffering. The finale, according to the composer himself, “answers all the questions posed in the previous movements.”

[facsimile signature:] Harold Sheldon

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