Shostakovich’s Symphony № 4: The Intention to Disturb Us

Pages from Shostakovich’s draft for the 4th symphony

It is the winter of 1961. Dmitri Shostakovich is sitting in the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Hall, several rows before the stage. In front of him is the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra with its conductor, Kirill Kondrashin, giving instructions from the podium. Everyone is gathered for a rehearsal of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor, which will receive its world premiere on the day before New Year’s Eve.

The stage is filled by some 125 players, including over eighty in the string section. It is the largest orchestral arrangement that Shostakovich has ever used for a symphony, including the mammoth Symphony No. 7 that he composed as a tribute to his home city of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War. Lasting an hour – or slightly longer in some future interpretations – the Fourth Symphony is a highly rhythmic, dissonant, and oftentimes manic work in three movements that uses a range of symphonic and dance forms with bewildering variety. There are relentless march beats, astringent waltzes played by strings in piano, breakneck fugues, and an occasional sarcastic galop. This disparate content builds to one of the loudest and most emphatically tragic recaps in symphonic music before fading into a heartbeat-like pulse from the tympany and two harps, an endless C minor chord by the strings, a wistful trumpet call, and a repeated motto on the celesta that all make for an epilogue reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique.

Shostakovich is 55 years old at the time of these rehearsals. Once known to the public as a gawky, naïve-looking young man whose First Symphony was reaching concert halls around the world, he now bears the physical signs of maturity, looking more rounded and with a swath of closely trimmed, dark brown hair that is losing its exuberance. There is plenty, however, that has not changed at all. Aware of the social pressures that have overshadowed most of his career, he still speaks and acts with jarring mannerisms that betray a painful self-consciousness. He still smokes incessantly and looks quite uncomfortable when around people he is not familiar with, his posture becoming stiff and his eyes darting. And always to crush these indicators of uncertainty are when his blue eyes, behind familiar round lenses, gaze with purpose and confidence upon the work he is creating to depict his milieu. Renowned throughout the world for his symphonies, concerti, operas, ballets, chamber music, film scores, and numerous other works, his reputation as the Soviet Union’s greatest composer has been permanently established, though no one is completely sure of it yet.

Symphonies by Shostakovich have always been highly anticipated, but the Fourth Symphony’s premiere has drawn particularly strong notice from listeners and critics, as it will fill a significant void in his catalog. Shostakovich had completed the Fourth in 1936, twenty-five years ago, but audiences were not able to hear it. Written when artists faced arrest for not complying with the open-ended guidelines of Socialist Realism, this symphony was withdrawn from performance at the same time that Shostakovich tabled other works like his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, his ballet The Limpid Brook, and the Piano Concerto No. 1. This suppression, coupled with a recanting of his errors before the authorities and all-around successes like his Fifth Symphony and various film soundtracks that he wrote as a means of income, helped Shostakovich to endure the late 1930s’ widespread purges under Josef Stalin. The USSR, in fits and starts, continued its evolution across the twentieth century and the Fourth Symphony underwent a long gestation, nearly becoming lost in the ravages of war across Europe.

The arrest, imprisonment, and execution of artists who differed with government policy – as perceived or otherwise – was nothing new to Soviets when Shostakovich completed work on the Fourth Symphony. Nothing, however, had prepared him for the sudden crackdown on his profession that began after at least half of the symphony was written. At the end of 1935, Shostakovich was enjoying both popular and critical success, as Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov, was being staged in opera houses both inside and outside the country. The opera, an expressionistic drama about a young woman named Katerina Ismailova who murders her husband to escape a loveless marriage, was first performed in 1934 and ran for 180 combined performances in Moscow and Leningrad. Acclaimed as one of the best theatrical works to come out of a nascent Soviet Union, it reached cities like Prague, Stockholm, London, and Philadelphia. Shostakovich had driven over creative potholes when The Nose, his first opera, received harsh criticism and works like his Second Symphony, a musical attempt at Futurism, proved to be aesthetic dead ends, but he was now highly regarded in artistic circles and served as a cultural ambassador with violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Lev Oborin on a state visit to Turkey. He had also become a figure of early Soviet artistic achievement in the international media.

Everything changed on January 26, 1936, when Stalin made his infamous visit to the Bolshoi Theater for a performance of Lady Macbeth. Stalin, an opera enthusiast, was joined by Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars Vyacheslav Molotov, Minister of Foreign Trade Anastas Mikoyan, and Andrei Zhdanov, the cultural chief who would be especially visible in the postwar ‘antiformalist’ campaigns. These party bosses’ reception of the opera was a disaster and had far-reaching effects on Soviet art at large. Their reactions during the performance are said to have varied from irritation in hearing Shostakovich’s noisy orchestra to derision at scenes like the Ismailov workwoman’s rape and the bedroom rendezvous of Katerina and her lover Sergei, whose physical workings are alluded to with trombone glissandi. Lady Macbeth, clearly influenced by the nightmarish atmosphere and sexual frankness of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, was bound to upset people; but it did not seem to raise significant dander until Stalin and his colleagues walked out before the final act.

Shostakovich was in the audience that night and appeared for curtain call, receiving a huge ovation as usual. He was distracted, however, in knowing that the Soviet power brokers had not stayed to meet with him, which was an immediate sign of trouble. Just two days later, his worries were confirmed when an unsigned editorial in Pravda, ‘Chaos Instead of Music,’ denounced Lady Macbeth as vulgar and against Soviet artistic principles. Who wrote the piece has been a matter of speculation, but it clearly reflected the feelings of Stalin and his administrators. An editorial that trashed Shostakovich’s ballet The Limpid Brook would appear shortly afterward, making his position even more tenuous. Acquaintances inside and outside of music began to keep their distance for fear of association. Others, especially inferior composers who were jealous of his talent, looked to fan the flames of scandal in which Shostakovich was embroiled.

The artistic policies of Socialist Realism, intended to convey the working classes’ struggles against bourgeois oppression and their ultimate triumph, had been well-established by the time that ‘Chaos Instead of Music’ appeared. Recognized in principle since the early 1920s, novelist and playwright Maxim Gorky set out its first concrete guidelines at the 1934 Soviet Writers Congress. Gorky expounded that art must concern itself solely with the proletariat and be understandable to them; it must depict the typical situations of workers’ lives; the depictions must be realistic; and they must be supportive of country and party. These tenets, which had full backing from the Stalinist government, took effect in literature and made their way into drama, music, film, radio, and spatial arts like painting, sculpture, and photography. A narrowing of aesthetic possibilities occurred and any artist thought to have strayed from Gorky’s requirements was labelled as a ‘formalist’ or ‘bourgeois decadent,’ two vaguely defined terms that nevertheless had serious impact. Both were used to describe Shostakovich when the Pravda articles circulated and none of his colleagues wished to be linked with them.

While it may be hard to believe now, Soviet artists enjoyed a period of considerable freedom in the years after 1917. Avant-gardism, which was encouraged or at least tolerated in Bolshevik circles as a way of subverting the old order, continued unabated from before the Revolution and produced some of Europe’s most radical creations. Futurism, Constructivism, Rayonism, Suprematism, and Neo-Primitivism are just a few of the styles that had their followers. This freer atmosphere was helped by the civil war that lasted until 1923 and the new Soviet government’s dogged efforts at nationalization, which dropped artistic policy to a lower level of importance. Avant-gardism, however, always had its share of opposition and the climate began to shift when Stalin consolidated his power before Lenin’s death in 1924.

Soviet music can be seen as a microcosm of the reaction against progressive artists in the 1920s and 30s. At this time, the music community was split into two opposing groups based in Moscow, the Association of Contemporary Music (ACM) and the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). Both organizations were formed in 1923; ideologically, they were chalk and cheese. The ACM supported musical modernism and held Alexander Scriabin’s blurring of form and tonality in particular esteem. Paul Hindemith, Franz Schreker, Darius Milhaud, and Henry Cowell were amongst several Western composers to visit the Soviet Union on its members’ invitation. The 1927 Leningrad premiere of Wozzeck, which Berg attended, was also promoted by the ACM. The RAPM, by contrast, viewed Western music’s history and future through a stringently Marxist lens. RAPM members declared that advanced forms of Western classical music were the products of sickly bourgeois and upper-class values, while those of the virtuous working classes were embodied in folk music, chant, and plainsong. The association’s 1929 manifesto stated its goal of clearing all Western elitist influences from Soviet musical culture and replacing them with values based solely in the proletariat. Prime examples of RAPM ideology put into action are the songs ‘Workers of the World’ by Viktor Belyi and ‘They Wanted to Beat, to Beat Us’ by Alexander Davidenko. An outstanding case of RAPM compliance by a non-member is Lev Knipper’s Fourth Symphony, Poem of the Komsomol Fighter, whose lyrics by Viktor Gusev have become a much-loved popular tune, ‘Meadowland.’

As one may expect, the RAPM had an aesthetic that was completely opposite to the ACM. Distrustful of complex musical forms, polyphony, and dissonance – all signs of corruptive Western elitism – its members advocated the simplest ways of composition possible. There was an emphasis placed on choral unison, which was intended to promote solidarity of the masses, and allusion to folk themes for easier understanding. While the RAPM did seek to create opportunities for lower-class musicians in conservatories and performance venues, it actively campaigned against any music that did not meet its demands. Scriabin, whose music remained popular after his death in 1915, was blasted for having “a corrupting influence on the proletariat’s artistic sensibilities.” Composers in such modes as serialism, light music, and jazz also came under fierce attack, along with the people who backed them.

While organizations came and went, the ACM and RAPM ruled Soviet musical debate. They tensely coexisted until 1932, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued its Decree on the Reformation of Literary and Artistic Organizations. This dissolved all existing artistic groups in the country, including the ACM, RAPM, Association of Proletarian Writers, and Association of Revolutionary Artists, which housed painters, graphic artists, and sculptors. The civil war now over and the USSR’s first Five Year Plan having reached its end date, Stalin and his government could begin to focus on art as a means of propaganda. Until the decree, artists’ organizations were freestanding and without direct government oversight, at least in theory. The new policy called for their replacement by creative unions, whose leaderships would routinely answer to the Kremlin. The Union of Soviet Composers arrived to end the ACM and RAPM’s long-standing feud.

This advent of creative unions was welcomed by many artists who saw the old organizations as cabals that tended to shut out detractors. Shostakovich, then 25, was one who spoke positively of the change. He had been a member of the ACM and was lambasted by the RAPM after an initial concert performance of his opera The Nose, based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story, in 1929. After its eventual failure on the stage – with much help from RAPM campaigning – Shostakovich found himself in an untenable position and took up employment at the Workers’ Youth Theater, or TRAM, with intention of waiting things out. Though the ACM was backed by talented figures like Shostakovich, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Vissarion Shebalin, Gavril Popov, and Vladimir Shcherbachov, it came under growing pressure from the RAPM, whose ideas were more in line with socialist principles and fit neatly into the Soviet Communist Party’s use of agitprop. The new union would become a Soviet bureaucratic monster of its own, but this changing climate had at least the pretense of openness.

Shostakovich worked on Lady Macbeth with librettist Alexander Preys while at TRAM and completed the opera in 1932. It was accepted for staging and premiered at both the Maly Theater in Leningrad on January 22, 1934 and the Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater in Moscow two days later under an alternate title of Katerina Ismailova. Unlike The Nose, which failed completely, Lady Macbeth was praised by Soviet audiences, critics, and apparatchiks. It became an international sensation, with encouragement from Soviet propaganda outlets, and brought Shostakovich recognition as a mature artist. He was no longer the prodigious conservatory graduate whose First Symphony, a dark cross-stitch of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, had reached major Western orchestras just after his twentieth birthday. Taking advantage of a new creative inlet, he also wrote and began performing the 24 Preludes for solo piano, opus 34, and Piano Concerto No. 1 shortly after Lady Macbeth’s completion. These were two works meant to revive Shostakovich’s career as an instrumentalist.

Shostakovich was visiting Arkhangelsk, a port city on the White Sea, when that denunciation appeared in Pravda two days after Stalin and his cohort walked out of Lady Macbeth. ‘Chaos Instead of Music’ may only read like a harsh overreaction today, but its implied threats were real and sensed by anyone who lived within the Soviet political machine. Despite international fame, Lady Macbeth was discontinued mostly everywhere and would not return until 1962 in a revised version named Katerina Ismailova. Shostakovich, fearing the worst, removed other music that might lead to controversy. While the denunciation and imprisonment of artists would have been no mystery to Shostakovich and those who knew him, his drastic turn in fortune after the success of Lady Macbeth was unexpected. The Pravda articles, as it turned out, signaled a beginning to creative artists’ micromanagement by the Soviet authorities. Shostakovich’s prominence in world music, thought an irritant to the megalomaniac Stalin, made him a prime first candidate for reproach.

While Shostakovich was first to be so openly targeted, he was far from alone under the magnifying glass. The previous March, Gavril Popov saw a ban imposed on his First Symphony, an expressionistic and free-form work for large orchestra, after just one performance. The ban was lifted for a time but eventually made permanent due to Popov’s association with Shostakovich and the ACM. Though it has been performed and recorded in recent years, Popov never heard the symphony again. His future works became conservative in style, with frequent use of Soviet propagandic subjects to appease critics. Popov received the Stalin Prize for his unadventurous Second Symphony, entitled Motherland, in 1946; while earning this hollow victory, he was nagged by emotional conflicts and alcoholism that remained until his death in 1972.

Sergei Prokofiev, who left Russia in 1918 to pursue opportunities as a composer and pianist in the West, got special treatment after returning with his wife and two sons to take up permanent residence in Moscow during the late 1930s. After shuffling between that city and Paris for four years, Prokofiev was thought to have stayed home partly from homesickness and perhaps from seeing a window of opportunity to become the USSR’s leading composer while Shostakovich was under attack. He immediately clashed with the authorities, seeing his Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution rejected after commission. It was not premiered until 1966, thirteen years after his death and still in heavily edited form. Though works like his Fifth Symphony, the children’s orchestral tale Peter and the Wolf, and the soundtrack for Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky became famous, Prokofiev lost the ability to travel and morphed into a virtual artistic puppet of the Soviet state. In 1938, his passport was confiscated on suspicions from the years spent in Europe and North America. His first wife Lina, a vocalist of Spanish, Polish, and Huguenot extraction whom he returned with but left for poet Mira Mendelson, would be arrested on a variety of spurious charges in 1948 and sentenced to twenty years in the Gulag. She was released in 1956, after both Prokofiev’s and Stalin’s passings (they both died on March 5, 1953) and with appeals from Shostakovich.

The Pravda articles coincided with Stalin’s purges going into full force and ruining, by way of exile, lengthy incarceration, or death, the lives of many whom Shostakovich knew. This included his sister Maria, also a musician, and her husband Vsevolod Frederiks, a renowned physicist; his mother-in-law Sofia Varzar, an astronomer; his uncle Maxim Kostrikin, who had been exiled to Siberia as a collaborator in the 1905 revolution but managed to survive; Vsevolod Meyerhold, the famed stage director who commissioned him to write music for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s play The Bedbug; dramaturge Adrian Piotrovsky, who wrote The Limpid Brook’s scenario; musicologist Nikolai Zhilyayev, an adviser on his compositions; and Shostakovich’s patron Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who became Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1935 only to be executed two years later on claims of being a German spy. Composers, if not keeping themselves in check, would find the same outcomes arriving to their doors. In Shostakovich’s own case, the attacks were so prominent and clearly initiated by Stalin that most saw him as a condemned man. It was under such tense circumstances that he completed the Fourth Symphony, which would bring him another set of problems.

Shostakovich began work on the Fourth Symphony in September 1935, a few months before the Pravda attacks upended his career. The symphony may even have been conceived earlier, since Shostakovich, like other gifted composers, was known to plan entire works in his head before actually writing them down. No one is sure of how much had been completed when the Lady Macbeth attack came, although it seems that he was working on the third and final movement. It is also uncertain if the outside pressures had any influence on Shostakovich’s finished product; they may not have truly swayed him at all. Regardless, the 29-year-old – amidst relatives, friends, and colleagues being pulled into the Stalinist Terrors, the newspaper attacks, and the ongoing denouncements – held enough faith in his artistic vision to complete the symphony and advocate for its performance.

The Fourth was completed in April 1936 and accepted for performance by conductor Fritz Stiedry of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, which also gave the premieres of Shostakovich’s first three symphonies and several later ones. Otto Klemperer, who met with Stiedry and Shostakovich while fulfilling an engagement, also planned to conduct the new work overseas. Readying for its December 11th premiere, the Leningrad Philharmonic held a series of edgy rehearsals. The Great Terror years, needless to say, were difficult in music circles and a feeling of uneasiness hung in the air as Shostakovich’s Fourth was put through its initial unboxing. Ten rehearsal sessions took place; depending upon which account one is reading, Stiedry – an Austrian supporter of avant-gardists – was handling the music poorly, the orchestra was grumbling over its unconventional form and massive scale, or both. One thing was certain: there was growing dissatisfaction amongst all parties as matters developed.

After its tenth rehearsal, Shostakovich withdrew the symphony from performance – although this might be speaking in relative terms. While he lodged the formal request to withdraw, this decision may have essentially been made for him at a sidebar of Leningrad Philharmonic director Isai Renzin, Soviet Communist Party officials, and leaders of the Composers Union. Shostakovich was likely ordered or ‘encouraged’ to cancel the premiere, knowing that it would only heap more controversy upon the composer and anyone who endorsed his music. Though seeming to have no doubts in the work itself – Shostakovich would not even change a single note during rehearsals for its belated premiere in 1961 – he could not be arrogant enough to overlook the fear that gripped himself and those around him. He was already losing family and friends to Stalin’s web of persecution. His wife, the physicist Nina Varzar, had also just delivered their first child, Galina.

Even during his times in the ideological doghouse, premieres of Shostakovich’s symphonies were treated as major events by the Soviet press. Accordingly, Shostakovich would explain to journalists that he wasn’t satisfied with how the Fourth Symphony turned out and removed it. He cited reasons like an unsuccessful finale and ‘grandiosomania,’ the latter in reference to a 1920s and 30s Soviet artistic trend of conceiving on a scale that could only buckle under its own weight. Testimony, the controversial Shostakovich memoirs arranged by Solomon Volkov, claims that Stiedry was making a hash of the score during rehearsals and essentially forced Shostakovich to withdraw it. Author Isaac Glikman, a secretary and friend of the composer who lived until 2003, advances in his own writings that Shostakovich submitted to the administrators so that he and everyone else could avoid the repercussions of performing it. Whichever reason might prove true, his newest work was dropped from the concert schedule and entered a period of limbo that would include Leningrad’s siege by Nazi Germany, Stalin’s last years in power, and the cultural ‘thaw’ that was initiated under Nikita Khrushchev. Shostakovich, desperately needing a success in the concert hall, began work on his leaner and more accessible Fifth Symphony – the number acknowledging his prior abortive effort – in mid-1937.

After the Leningrad Philharmonic’s triumphant premiere of his Fifth under Yevgeny Mravinsky that November (Stiedry, whom Mravinsky replaced, was one of several foreign conductors who lost their positions to Soviets), Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony faded into the woodwork, much like Gavril Popov’s First Symphony and Prokofiev’s never-to-be-performed cantata. Catalogs of his works noted the Fourth Symphony’s existence and the world music community would ask what became of it, but time nevertheless moved forward; new works by Shostakovich and composers like Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, Myaskovsky, Dmitri Kabalevsky, and Shebalin entered the repertoire in great number. After the last rehearsal and backroom series of events that led to its taking-down from the boards, Shostakovich carried his Fourth Symphony’s manuscript home and locked it in a drawer, supposedly planning to make revisions. Yet, as Eastern Europe inched closer to war with Germany and Italy in the late 1930s, nothing further was heard about it.

On June 22, 1941, Nazi German forces and their allies invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. The Siege of Leningrad, which would last for over two years and harbor the deaths of approximately 1.2 million Soviets, led officials to evacuate important figures like Shostakovich and their families. The Shostakoviches – Dmitri, Nina, and their children Galina and Maxim – relocated to Kuibyshev, a city at the Volga and Samara Rivers’ confluence then serving as provisional capital. He completed his Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, that December; the most politically significant symphony ever written, it was performed by orchestras, recorded, and aired on radio stations throughout the world. The symphony’s recognition brought him to the July 20, 1942 cover of Time, donning his helmet as a Leningrad fire brigade volunteer. Shostakovich, his wife, and children made it through the war unscathed, but it was uncertain if all of his music did. He may have left the Fourth Symphony behind in Leningrad when travelling east.

Upon World War II’s end, the Russian people and those of the Soviet annexes had survived further ordeals in their dark yet incredibly rugged histories. This war period was one of considerably more openness for artists, but it was forced by the Soviet Union’s need for patriotism and to cooperate with its allies rather than a true act of creative goodwill. Artists like Shostakovich could sense a transitory vibe in these freedoms and expected another tightening-down once the war was over. Their worries came to fruition when the first Zhdanov Decree was issued in 1946, part of an ideological shift that pitted the ‘democratic’ Soviet Union against American imperialism. Andrei Zhdanov, who served as cultural idealogue and was thought to be Stalin’s eventual successor, kept a large presence during that time when Soviet government shed its wartime mask and returned to the modi operandi of ten years earlier. A dreadful backlash resulted after Soviets experienced, albeit briefly, increased contacts with the West. Those who made such international connections were often arrested on collaboration charges. More frequently than not, they were executed or perished after grueling years in the labor camps. Stalin found this time ideal for cleaning house within the government and numerous higher-ups were viciously removed. Two examples were Politburo member Nikolai Voznesensky and Central Committee secretary Alexei Kuznetsov, who were shot on false charges of embezzlement in the so-called ‘Leningrad Affair.’

Creative artists were prime targets for attack, as Stalin and Zhdanov remained conscientious of how art should be framed within the boundaries of Soviet propaganda. Zhdanov, who always held Leningrad policymaking interests, first went after Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko, two renowned writers of the city, in August 1946. The enforcement reached composers by 1948 and conferences were held in Moscow, where those of Shostakovich’s field were taken to task. Helmed by Zhdanov and new Composers Union secretary Tikhon Khrennikov, the gatherings put Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Myaskovsky, less renowned but familiar names like Shebalin, Popov, Shcherbachov, and Boris Lyatoshinsky, and expatriates like Stravinsky on display with lengthy addresses that condemned their works. Like Shostakovich’s own case with Lady Macbeth in 1936, the fact that many of these compositions had been well-regarded meant nothing. Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and others had an added humiliation of going before the microphone or writing letters to recant their ‘formalist’ ways as a face-saving exercise. There were also a healthy number who looked to ingratiate themselves with the regime, such as Vano Muradeli, whose opera The Great Friendship had a Lady Macbeth-like effect and displeased Stalin. Muradeli was one of the first to repent and claimed himself the victim of poor example-setting by his colleagues. Dmitri Kabalevsky was meant to be included on the shortlist of formalists but used political savvy to have his name replaced by Popov’s.

Shostakovich, still hurting from the 1936 denunciations, saw his music banned and was removed from teaching positions in Moscow and Leningrad. He was able to generate income by writing film scores, including for epics like The Fall of Berlin that literally deify Stalin, and other works clearly aimed at Soviet propaganda value. While he was publicly shamed, denounced in educational institutions, and reduced to a hired hand, the outcomes of Shostakovich’s colleagues were often worse. Prokofiev, for instance, who was 15 years older and never meshed with Shostakovich in ethics or personality, found his health to be the ultimate cost of returning home. Once the rebellious dandy who irked Paris in the 1920s, he began to suffer from high blood pressure and experienced a series of strokes. The 1948 antiformalist campaign in music and arrest of his first wife that February (on charges of espionage – she had actually sent cash to her mother in Spain) aided the deterioration; he suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage on the same day as Stalin’s death.

Nikolai Myaskovsky, a First World War veteran wounded in battle and leading professor and critic, had become known as ‘the musical conscience of Moscow’ for his extensive contributions to Soviet musical life and thought. His achievements included 27 symphonies, 13 string quartets, numerous piano pieces, songs, and choral works, writings on musical trends, and the many students whom he influenced with Russian musical tradition. Upon receiving an invitation from the Composers Union to repent, Myaskovsky answered with silence; he claimed illness and did not attend the later meetings or send a formal statement, refusing to take part in an undressing of his dignity. Despite being the recipient of four Stalin Prizes for his music (he would garner a fifth posthumously, the most of any composer), Myaskovsky lost his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory and his works were banned from performance. He was restored to his faculty position and wrote new works that improved his standing with critics, but there would not be enough time for him to fully salvage his place in the repertoire. Myaskovsky died of cancer in 1950 and fell into relative obscurity, with his music seeing only a very gradual revival.

Vissarion Shebalin, who emerged from Omsk in Siberia to become a key music organizer and teacher, made Shostakovich the dedicatee of his Third Symphony in 1935 and was one of few brave enough to defend him when those Pravda attacks emerged the following year. Shebalin wrote five symphonies, a violin concerto, and several chamber works that are unfairly neglected, besides his lengthy tenure in education. He lost his position as director of the Moscow Conservatory, saw his music banned, and suffered strokes that incapacitated the right side of his body and most of his speaking ability. Determined to fight his handicaps, he resumed work in lower teaching posts, learned to write with his left hand, and continued turning out incisive works until his death in 1963.

If murder did not find its way to artists such as Meyerhold or actor Solomon Mikhoels, who was killed in Minsk and made to look like the victim of a hit-and-run incident, they were weighed upon by their undone livelihoods and the ongoing emotional traumas. Akhmatova and Zoshchenko were banished from the writers union, making significant publication of their work nearly impossible. Both lived in poverty and Akhmatova endured particular hardship with the imprisonment of her son for lengthy terms between 1938 and 1956 and her third husband’s death in 1953 while still a Gulag inmate (her first husband, poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was executed in 1921 on false charges of a tsarist conspiracy). The outcome was similar for dramatists, composers, filmmakers, painters, sculptors, illustrators, architects, and those in academic circles like history, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. More broadly, however, the Zhdanovschina period was taking on a national grimness familiar to those who already lived through the 1930s.

Adding to its ominousness, the new period of terror took on an openly antisemitic bend, underscored in January 1953 by word of the Doctors’ Plot, a supposed conspiracy amongst mainly Jewish physicians to murder high-ranking Soviet officials. National policy had only given lip service to Jews when the Soviet Union cooperated with its Western allies during the war; while enlisted in the military, Soviet Jews often assumed gentile surnames to avoid discrimination. Stalin, whose paranoia was increasing exponentially, began viewing Jewish figures and institutions in the Soviet Union as ‘bourgeois’ and a threat to national security. Mikhoels, for example, was chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, both of which were shut down on the Kremlin’s orders. Of Latvian birth, he was one in a majority of JAC leaders who perished. Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish-born composer who fled from the Nazi advance to Minsk and whose entire immediate family died in the Holocaust, became a son-in-law of Mikhoels and was arrested on charges of ‘Jewish bourgeois nationalism’ in February 1953, just weeks before Stalin’s death. Had the dictator lived just slightly longer, Weinberg may have become an inmate at one of the four extermination camps that Stalin ordered to be built in Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Soviet arctic region but never saw completed. He was released after petitioning by Shostakovich and lived until 1996.

When the Soviet intelligentsia looked at their position in early 1948, an end to the madness felt beyond reach. Stalin was 69 years old and experiencing both mental and physical problems, but his regime leant no traces of slowing down. Fate, nevertheless, would intervene. On August 31st, Andrei Zhdanov suddenly died of heart failure at age 52. A heavy drinker, Zhdanov was flagging in health and starting to be undermined by Khrushchev, Georgey Malenkov, and Lavrentey Beria. Five years later, Stalin died and left a power vacuum that Malenkov initially filled. After intrigues that saw him demoted and Beria executed, Khrushchev ascended to First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, putting him firmly at the controls. Social reforms began to take place and many of those able to survive their years in the Gulag were released. Innocent parties who died were given posthumous exoneration, though it was of no direct use to them. In February 1956, Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ at the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress that aimed to marginalize Stalin’s time as leader. This social change and unshackling from autocracy resulted in the ‘Thaw’ that would continue for a decade.

Shostakovich was asked about the Fourth Symphony in 1956 and is quoted as saying, with typically jarring speech, “My Fourth was a failure. It is a very imperfect, long-winded work.” The symphony looked to outsiders as a permanent gap in his catalog, but developments had been taking place behind the scenes. At first, the manuscript full score appeared to be permanently lost, as neither Shostakovich nor any of his acquaintances came forward with it. If Shostakovich left his manuscript in Leningrad during the siege, it was more than likely used with all other paper for fires. A story has also circulated amongst friends that he loaned it to conductor Alexander Gauk, who may have become a victim of theft while travelling. Shostakovich, however, still had a two-piano arrangement from when first seeking concert performance in the mid-1930s. In 1945, he performed this at a recital with Mieczyslaw Weinberg and had an edition printed of 300 copies. Later, the orchestral parts used in Fritz Stiedry’s rehearsals were discovered by Levon Atovmyan, a well-regarded composer, arranger, and editor, and staff members of the Leningrad Philharmonic’s archives. The parts allowed for a complete reconstruction of the score and reopened the question of a future concert performance. A premiere in the years immediately after Stalin’s death, however, remained unlikely, as even the piano version was criticized by Tikhon Khrennikov and anti-formalist acolytes.

When the Thaw began, there were renewed possibilities for Shostakovich’s music. Works like the First Violin Concerto and Tenth Symphony, conceived while living under Stalin but kept private, began to see the light of day in concert halls. In 1961, Shostakovich felt it was time to complete his unfinished business with the Fourth Symphony. He gave the Moscow Philharmonic and 47-year-old conductor Kirill Kondrashin their opportunity to play it before an audience. Its premiere was held on December 30, 1961, a quarter-century and nineteen days after the originally planned concert in Leningrad. Shostakovich, to give further context, heard the initial performances of his Twelfth Symphony that October. The following year, Symphony No. 4 had its overseas debut at the Edinburgh Festival, where it was performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky. In 1963, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy gave its American debut. The work was eagerly accepted and carried both a present-day and historical resonance.

A landmark of the European symphonic repertoire, Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony has come to represent his experiences as an artist under totalitarian oppression and is largely viewed as a tribute to his decades of survival. While the Fourth brims with this extramusical significance, it does not keep its position as a masterpiece through the composer’s troubles alone; in musical terms, it is one of the most dramatically complex and architecturally masterful pieces of symphonic literature ever written. Taking its immediate cue from Mahler, whose works Shostakovich admired, the symphony also reflects influences like Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Berg, Krenek, and even Gavril Popov, whose banned First Symphony might be a direct predecessor with its motoric rhythms and bombastic climaxes. The Fourth aims for a progressive style but stays rooted within tonality and does not forget the techniques of past masters, such as Tchaikovsky’s deceptive waltz patterns with their underlying sense of unrest and Bruckner’s almost manic use of repetition to build and slacken dramatic contexts.

The Fourth Symphony also offers a glimpse into the aesthetic realm that Shostakovich might have entered if his denunciations never happened. After dabbling with Futurist and Constructivist models in the Second and Third Symphonies, the Fourth seems to metamorphosize all of his prior work into something bigger, more solid, and with much greater emotional impact. Many Soviet colleagues were in this spirit akin to ‘Make it new,’ the famous dictum of Ezra Pound, before censorship’s screws began tightening. Though elements of this avant-garde would recur at odd moments in the years that followed, its full creative realizations were not allowed to take place. In Shostakovich’s own case, he began to write music that was less expansive and daring, though it was never less than consummate. His Fifth Symphony, which he gave the subtitle of ‘A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism,’ is one typically well-worked compromise between individual creativity and demands of the state, but also a multilayered caricature of Socialist Realism that few artists could truly pull off.

Across the decades, Shostakovich’s creative life was blunted on multiple fronts. The Lady Macbeth debacle and harsh criticism of works like The Nose and The Limpid Brook deterred him from writing major works for the stage. His recognition in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s tended to come from symphonies, concert vocal works, chamber music, and film scores. The symphonies, however, were his most-travelled compositions and an ongoing point of interest for world music. As his symphonic cycle grew into the Eleventh and Twelfth – themed on the 1905 and 1917 revolutions – critics in the West felt that Shostakovich’s creative powers were beginning to wane. When his Fourth Symphony was performed at the same Edinburgh Festival as his Twelfth in 1962, many compared a daring scope of innovation in the earlier work to the latter’s overall conservatism.

Having been made General Secretary of the Composers Union’s new Russian Federation branch in 1960 (Tikhon Khrennikov poked around as an administrator until the 1990s), Shostakovich spent eight years trying to create a more hospitable atmosphere for musicians emerging from the Soviet conservatories and institutes. Now in his fifties and no longer feeling extreme pressures applied by Stalin, the new compositions began to show a wider palate and greater artistic license. His Thirteenth Symphony, Babi Yar, is a blistering vocal work using texts by rebel poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It opens with a remembrance of the titular ravine near Kiev where over 100,000 people were massacred by the Nazis, ironically linking its 34,000 Jewish victims over a two-day period in 1941 to antisemitism amongst Russians. The work proceeds to offer commentary on Soviet life and the intellectual’s position within it. Though there were attempts to suppress the Thirteenth, these were only partially successful and it was first performed in December 1962 under Kondrashin, a happening that would have been impossible ten years before. Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony, for soprano and bass soloists, string orchestra, and percussion, is a setting of death poetry by Lorca, Apollinaire, Wilhelm Küchelbecker, and Rilke. Gloomy and frequently sardonic, the Fourteenth is one of several late works in which Shostakovich confronted his own mortality. The Fifteenth and final, whose premiere was conducted by his son Maxim, is entirely orchestral and mysterious, quoting from various sources like Rossini’s William Tell and Wagner’s Ring cycle.

The Fifteenth Symphony, whose premiere was held three years before Shostakovich’s death, concluded one of the most influential symphonic cycles in music and towering series of artistic achievements in human history. Amongst these fifteen, however, his Fourth Symphony may provide a touchstone of the artist that Shostakovich – indeed, many of his colleagues – began as, could have been, and ultimately became. It remains widely performed, recorded, and studied for both its musical uniqueness and backstory of an author whose career was to be bureaucratically destroyed and rebuilt into a very different shape. Shostakovich’s musical achievement continues to thrive in the social climate of today and works like the Fourth Symphony have their reality-based intention to disturb us.