An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 3
Conductor Vasily Petrenko guides us through the history and analysis of Shostakovich's Third Symphony 'May Day'
Symphony No. 3 ‘May Day’ Op. 20 (1929)
Premiered: Leningrad, 1930
The Third Symphony (which he also discouraged Maxim from conducting) is titled ‘May Day’, but its effect is ironic rather than rousing. At the time Shostakovich wrote this, he was newly married, and simply needed the money. But it turned out to be an opportunity to see how much grotesque satire his audience could recognise.
‘The Second and Third symphonies are very difficult to perform properly and it took me a long time to work out how to make them feel logical. They need to settle in your mind. By the Third you feel he’s really starting to be very ironic about the text and about the message. The poetry he uses is banal, amateur, and he’s mocking it – showing how absurd and empty the words were.’
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.