An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1
Conductor Vasily Petrenko guides us through the history and analysis of Shostakovich's First Symphony
Symphony No. 1 Op. 10 (1925)
Premiered: Leningrad, 1926
The 18-year-old Shostakovich wrote this as a graduation piece while working as a cinema pianist. Its spectacular premiere in 1926 established him.
VASILY PETRENKO: ‘The First Symphony is a formidably original student work, but you can trace the links. The orchestration owes a debt to Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky is an inspiration in the first half, and Tchaikovsky can be felt in the slow movement. And, for all its maturity, I’ve come to see how the score was drilled and squared by his teachers, particularly Glazunov.
You can sense how the work was being shaped: I don’t think it just came pouring out fully formed. The clue is that Glazunov knew it really well. Ironically, it was Glazunov who ruined Rachmaninov’s First Symphony by not learning it, conducting it drunk and messing it up.
Vasily Petrenko is, like Shostakovich, a son of Leningrad/St Petersburg, and grew up singing the composer’s songs in its Capella Boys Music School. In 1997 he won first prize in the Shostakovich Choral Conducting Competition and was made chief conductor of the St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra, during which time he took on the principal conductorship of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
On his arrival in the city in 2006, at just 30, he launched a project with Naxos to record all Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. The series has drawn international acclaim and, as the final instalment is released, he looks back on his nine-year journey. ‘To work with an orchestra on one composer for so many years has meant we could build a style, an approach to his language,’ he says. ‘At first, it felt like an exhilarating challenge: there are huge demands. Now, we are of one mind.’
Petrenko, born a year after the composer’s death, grew up in the Soviet Union. A beneficiary of its uniquely rigorous teaching system, he witnessed its dissolution when he was 15, the re-writing of history books, and even the emergence of a nostalgia for that dark era. He’s in touch with those who remember Shostakovich, and the times through which he lived, but has experienced the Western view of this controversial figure.
‘When I conduct these symphonies in Russia, there’s still an unspoken understanding of the songs, the messages. We talk more about the composer’s personal life. When I conduct in the West, it’s important to give the historical context. There’s still so much we don’t know; the family destroyed many letters when Shostakovich died. The State would probably have requisitioned them anyway.’
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.