Shostakovich Symphony No4 – A Personal View

Personal views on music are often problematic, precisely because they are personal. People asked to choose music to accompany their solitude often select pieces by association, pieces they heard at a particular time or place that was significant in their lives. The music becomes a reinforcement of purely internal associations and thus comes to signify things that are not actually in the music, itself, or even its experience, either for an audience or probably for its composer. In offering this personal view of Shostakovich Symphony no 4, I want to deal with the music first and foremost and my reactions to it. The views remain, however, nothing more than personal, but I hope they have at least something to do with the music.

The fourth symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich presents particular challenges. It was withdrawn by the composer during rehearsals and he himself did not hear a performance until its world premiere some twenty-five years later. In the meantime, he had partially disowned it, dismissing it as an excess. His opinions, however, may well have been driven by a need to conform, if only to avoid imprisonment and perhaps death. Self-preservation is also a necessary pursuit of composers. He had recently been criticised for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in a review which labelled his work more noise than music. The 1930s were not a decade to fall foul of a man of steel. The fourth symphony’s context is itself a challenge for the listener. One cannot be neutral in the face of this conflict.

The fourth is also a challenge because it is the fourth. The first had been ground-breaking, the work of a teenage genius who had yet to find his full voice. Numbers two and three are the ones that are now played the least, because they now smack of a socialist realist programme, where peasants and urban proletariat join hands to stare with wide-eyed, fixed gaze towards the receding horizon of a perfected future, though they themselves are standing still. The fourth was to be something different in both content and style, a work where the composer’s own voice would speak, a work of maturity where the future might just get a little closer.

But on first hearing, the fourth is not just different from what went before: it is different also from what followed, at least on its surface, both structurally and emotionally. It remains different for many hearings, but eventually one hears it again in the eighth, in the tenth and finally very much so in the fifteenth. It is also often lyrical, has musical jokes, circus and quite a lot of waltzing. There are fugues and variations. But throughout, there is threat.

This is challenging music, though there is nothing particularly difficult in what is actually heard. It is the almost relentless drive in the stone-faced sound that presents the listener with a challenge. The piece has clear rhythms, even a pop-like beat. It’s not atonal but does use much dissonance. The orchestration is massive, but conservative, save for occasional extremes in the percussion. But the music does seem like an ungoverned machine, running away with its own momentum. But then this was nothing special for the 1930s, as evidenced by the first movement of Prokofiev’s second symphony, Mossolov’s Iron foundry or Honegger’s Pacific 231, all from the previous decade. The fourth symphony, like these other pieces, is musically tough, hard-edged and often bitter. Perhaps the hardest thing for a new listener to accommodate, however, is the end of the work, because it’s a question mark, not a fade into infinite tranquillity, but an expiration to an unknown fate.

This Symphony Number Four has three sections that together last just over an hour. The first is half the work’s duration and contains most of the challenges, until that disquieting end. It opens with three dissonant chords, followed by a big bang, just like the universe. But this is a living entity and its heart begins immediately to beat and continues thus throughout to roughly the same rhythm. Though it occasionally may slow to a rest and eventually stop, the pulse is always there and is its living reality.

But this is no human heart. It’s an industrial, mechanical motion, incessant, penetrating and controlling. We begin to feel that human beings are servants to this process, mere pawns that are used in some greater activity than mere life.

Along the way, people tell jokes, go to the circus, dance the occasional waltz. But they also shout, scream like in Eisenstein or Munch, fight and destroy, but it’s the machine that always returns to impose its demands on those who serve it. Even the giant fugue in the middle of the movement cannot shake the mechanical regularity, except by running out of control. At first ordered and disciplined, the music fragments as instruments enter ever more quickly, as if wanting to break the order, to create anarchy. The conflict bursts into chaos, but the machine does return to reimpose its order, its discipline, and the rhythm restarts.

But late in the movement, a solo violin makes an extended, even human statement. It offers tenderness, regret and reflection and we become lulled, becalmed into a human existence. And then the machine’s pulse returns, not strongly, not forcefully, but it is as insistent as ever. And then the movement ends, quietly, but reiterating in changed, understated form the creation chords from the start.

This opening section has perhaps described part of the human condition, that part that includes our social, economic and political lives. In this vision we are not individuals. We are part of a universe that operates on its own terms, to its own rhythm and rejects anything that does not fit with its demands. We are also part of a human society that confines us with its expectation, norms and cultures. We may have our individual voices, but neither shouts nor whispers will be heard or acknowledged above the imposed norms. And the result is often violent, not because we are individually violent, but because that of which we are part is inherently mechanical, unforgiving and utterly selfish.

If the first section was an individual becoming a mere cog in industrial or societal structures, or perhaps strictures, then the second is surely human beings as intellect. The music here is full of reflection, self-analysis and suppressed emotion. It is never sentimental. Ideas come and go, but often do not hang together. This is reaction to reality, not analysis of it. And when they try to hang together, our human thoughts deliver us back to the mechanical rhythm of the opening movement, as if we are incapable of escaping its diktats. Paradoxically, it is when this regular, mechanical rhythm reimposes itself that we sense the greatest reassurance and confidence. Eventually, however, the process – intellectual and personal – becomes a piece of clockwork that seems to operate independently of any individual. It’s the same incessant controlling rhythm, but now it merely controls and does not threaten and, itself, was probably the product of our collective intellectual endeavour.

The symphony’s third section is both personal and emotional. From quiet reflection a sense of satisfaction seems to grow. Optimism surfaces and perhaps there may just be time and space in this universe for something tender and personal in scale to both exist and prosper. Perhaps there might even be meaning in this mechanical pile of which we are part. For once, the beat of the machine does not dominate. But this new confidence in our own abilities itself provides the impetus for the mechanical return, and return it does, syncopated and even more threatening, even though it might be a waltz in disguise.

Eventually, our optimism seems to overcome the pressure to conform. We will survive. We will prosper. We will control our own destiny. In moments of levity, we can entertain such ideas, and dance, despite our sounding and perhaps looking like a trivial joke. And then we rise above all conflict. We do control. We do decide.

A fugue again asserts its rationality. This time it stays in control, but then dissolves into a joke, or something as profound as an evening at the circus. In a vast assertion of our collective and individual confidence, we rise to a great fanfare of crescendo in triumph.

But it is an empty claim and we know it. And, thus, the symphony’s final passages point to the most difficult realisation for each and every one of us – that in the end there is still a heartbeat, which was perhaps the mechanical rhythm that dictated to our existence all along. But now it is faltering, fading. The orchestra literally and irregularly breathes as residual energy moves its limbs. The celeste – celestial? – repeatedly tries to break free from this trapped suffering, perhaps like a soul might seek eternity in Christian dogma. The heartbeat in the double basses is the same that Tchaikovsky used to end his sixth symphony, and here it also carries the same implications of mortality. At last, the final notes of the celeste break free, but the last note of all is not freedom, or paradise, but a question mark.

I said at the start that this would be a personal view and it is. The Symphony Number Four of Dmitri Shostakovich is, put simply, the greatest artistic work of the human race, surpassing anything else in any medium. This is where we truly meet ourselves, where the personal becomes personal, nothing more.