'20 years ago, I considered Prokofiev a genius and Shostakovich merely a ‘great’ composer. Nowadays I have changed my mind: I think of Prokofiev as an incredibly gifted composer, but Shostakovich is a genius.' Gianandrea Noseda, LSO Principal Guest Conductor
A composer’s symphonic output can be read as an autobiography of their life and artistic development. This is certainly the case with Dmitri Shostakovich, whose oeuvre of fifteen symphonies charts a fascinating development in compositional style and meaning during deeply troubled times in Russia.
LSO Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda’s Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Orchestra began during its 2017/18 season, and in the 2019/20 season he has already conducted performances of Symphonies 6 and 7. With number 9 next on the agenda, Noseda explains his motivation to showcase the complete cycle.
'Nowadays, I think it is important to present a composer through their corpus of symphonic works. I think it presents a truer image of their character. If you perform all the symphonies, by the end the composer has become a friend of yours. Present only a handful of symphonies, and they may become someone who you just meet occasionally – you like each other, you can have a conversation over a beer – but if you approach them all, little by little, by the end you become a member of the family. I hope this is what the public would experience: not just a historical figure, but someone who still speaks to you personally in a very fresh and meaningful way even today.'
It was partly Noseda’s ‘little by little’ approach to Shostakovich’s work that helped him begin to understand the symphonies, and formulate a clearer image of the composer himself. When Noseda was appointed Principal Guest Conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1997, he leapt at the opportunity to develop his understanding further.
'I spent a lot of time in St Petersburg, sharing a big house with ballerinas, orchestral players and other musicians of the Mariinsky ... just living the life a little, and learning to speak Russian. That was the key, and that is what helped me to appreciate Shostakovich, see him as purely Russian. Moreover, many of the older players I came to know in the Mariinsky had met him in the 1970s – speaking to them gave me a strong impression of who Shostakovich was as a person.'
And what was that impression?
'It seemed, as in my experience of the Russian spirit as a whole, that he could be incredibly happy and enthusiastic 98% of the time, while in the same moment completely devastated by tragedy. Or vice versa: sad, almost to the point of despair, yet still maintaining a little euphoria. Russian emotion may never be 100% clear feeling, always the big majority of one emotion mixed with a small amount of the absolute opposite. This is absolutely fascinating because in the case of Shostakovich there is always this kind of subtle smile you see in his photographs ... a very complex personality.'
This mixture of emotions was hinted at by the 27 year-old Shostakovich in 1934 where, before embarking on his fourth symphony, he said he wanted the work to ‘fight for the legitimate right of laughter in “serious” music’. Indeed, there was no shortage of humour mixed with seriousness in his first four symphonies, at times pitting sombre themes against buffoonery and caricature.
This youthful symphonic experimentation was brought to a screeching halt when the Stalinist regime declared his work: ‘muddle instead of music’. Shostakovich’s need to moderate his musical inventiveness or face the consequences could be discerned immediately in his next symphony. Noseda links Shostakovich’s Fifth with his First:
'I consider Symphony No 5 as a kind of Symphony No 1, as it was the first symphony composed after the catastrophic reaction to Symphony No 4 and to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – the opera famously criticised by Stalin via Pravda. I consider Symphony No 5 as the first attempt from the new ‘reborn’ Shostakovich, the Shostakovich who knew that, if he did something wrong, Siberia was not just an idea but a concrete element. The Fifth was a complete success, so for a while he was saved and looked upon with favour by Stalin and the intelligentsia. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to compare Symphonies No 1 and 5 in this way because they are essentially both First Symphonies for different reasons.'
Shostakovich’s relationship with Stalin and the intelligentsia was tense to say the least, and had a significant effect on his music from his fifth symphony onwards. But while his compositional methods seemed to have changed to please those in power, Shostakovich still managed to include that element of humour – that ‘fight for the legitimate right of laughter’ – as a subtle way to undermine those who had put such constraints on his creative work. Noseda sees the levity quite distinctly in the juxtaposition of two giants – Symphonies 7 and 8 – against the somewhat anticlimactic Symphony No 9.
'Shostakovich's Ninth is the last of the four war symphonies composed during World War 2. At Stalin’s request, Shostakovich’s Ninth was supposed to rival Beethoven’s, and be the celebration of the big victory of Mother Russia against the German dictatorship. What Shostakovich came out with was the shortest of his symphonies – it’s the only one written in 5 movements, but is still the shortest at only 29 minutes. I like to think of it as a ‘bonsai’ symphony, with a very Haydnesque spirit and a circus-like finale – very alive and very funny. So Stalin was disappointed. It was the opposite that he was expecting – celebration of a big victory – but Shostakovich’s reaction was ‘for me, this is victory!''
Shostakovich’s knack for mixing wry moments into sterner musical material continued to be seen his later symphonies. Whether using Symphony No 10 to pitch his musical initials (D – S – C – H) triumphantly against a sonic depiction of Stalin after the latter’s death in 1953, or weaving a sarcastic vision of Humour itself into a tapestry of sombre images of the Soviet world in Symphony No 13, or even laughing sardonically at death itself in Symphony No 14, Shostakovich’s work could never be said to be entirely one emotion or another. With so much depth of meaning to be found in Shostakovich’s symphonies, Noseda provides a recommendation to help listeners understand the music.
'I think from an audience’s point of view, Symphony No 1 is a good place to start. After that, probably No 9, then No 5 and No 10. After that, you can continue as you please because you will have become familiar with the language. In this way, No 8 or 14, 11 or 15 will not scare you anymore because you already have a sort of background. Even as a conductor I recommend beginning with Symphony No 1, as I would with other composers like Beethoven and Mahler.'
This article was written by David Gandon for the LSO Friends' termly Insight newsletter. For more exclusive and in-depth content like this become an LSO Friend today.