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Composed: 1939
Orchestration: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, three clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, three bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), harp, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 29, 1945, Alfred Wallenstein conducting

Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony was a surprise to everyone, very likely including himself. It was the work of an artist with a rediscovered confidence in his powers and position, a man at the crest of a roller coaster ride. He had been the golden boy of Soviet music since the premiere of his First Symphony in 1924. But in 1936 Shostakovich became the target of official criticism, for the first but not the last time, when Pravda derided his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as degenerate and pornographic. It should be kept in mind that while the debate bears certain similarities to the one now raging over government support of the arts in this country, a Soviet composer did not have the option of simply turning his back on the government.

Shostakovich responded first by withdrawing his Fourth Symphony (20 years later he called it “an imperfect, long-winded work that suffers from ‘grandiosomania’”) and in 1937 he scored a major triumph with the Fifth, which he called a “reply to just criticism.” It put him back on top of the world, a darling of both official and private Russia. A year after its premiere, Shostakovich announced in Soviet Art magazine that he was writing a symphony “to express through the medium of sound the immortal image of Lenin as a great son of the Russian people and a great leader and teacher of all the masses. I have received numerous letters from all corners of the Soviet Union with regard to my future symphony.”

It was a mistake to conceive a symphony in response to fan letters or the unspoken desires of bureaucrats, and the Lenin symphony never materialized. Instead, in 1939, Shostakovich brought out the Sixth Symphony, a work with no heroic mood, no extramusical significance, and less-than-obvious musical significance. Its structure — a long slow movement followed by two scherzos — was odd, and critics did not know what to make of it; they still don’t. It was received coolly, a minor dip on the roller coaster before the Seventh Symphony turned him into a wartime hero. Treated as music to be enjoyed by an audience under no obligation to make anything in particular out of it, it presents no problem at all. It is a creation of stunning beauty followed by terrific fun.

The first movement, which takes more than half the Symphony’s length, is an extended, solemn Largo, a deep exploration of one profound emotional affect. It takes much of its character from the upward yearning of the principal theme, and uses a handful of melodic ideas repeated and revisited with kaleidoscopic variation to build a long-lined, seamless structure. The sound picture is often reminiscent of Mahler, particularly the funereal theme introduced by the English horn. 

Solemnity having had its say, the fun begins. The second movement is a scherzo that features a wealth of melody (much of it derived from the opening solo by the small E-flat clarinet, and the violins’ pizzicato figure accompanying it), and a wealth of different moods. A middle section begins with a brusque theme in the clarinets and bassoons over a driving tremolando in the cellos and grows steadily, becoming very big and ominous before climaxing in the full orchestra and subsiding into a recapitulation of sorts, where the flute plays the opening theme upside down.

The last movement is a romp, and a largely comical one. The first part of it features a lightning-quick gallop in the violins, and lots of virtuosic doodling in the woodwinds and strings. The velocity, if not the intensity, decreases with a change from duple to triple meter, as the whole orchestra takes turns emphatically hammering out a quarter-note figure. (Shostakovich is pretty emphatic about this himself, loading the score with accent marks and the instruction marcatissimo.) This section climaxes and fades into a quiet section of uncertain rhythm (the meter changes between two and three nearly, but not quite, every bar), until a solo violin brings back the opening gallop. It builds to a raucous, self-consciously farcical coda that sounds a bit like a can-can for body-builders in the middle of a fraternity party.