An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4
Conductor Vasily Petrenko guides us through the history and analysis of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony
Symphony No. 4 Op. 43 (1932)
Premiered: Moscow, 1961
This is a work of Stalin’s Great Terror. Shostakovich was half-way through it when he was denounced for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In the gigantic first movement, Shostakovich embarked on the longest, most extreme work he was ever to attempt. Rehearsals began but the composer withdrew the work before its intended premiere.
‘It’s so clear from the Fourth that Shostakovich had immersed himself in Mahler, studying instrumentation, an extended type of orchestration. It’s the most amazing work, the way he creates the texture and noise of industrialisation; you can hear the machines, the effort of the labour. Then he unleashes a terrifying, frenzied brutality and, at the end, spiritual devastation which leads towards a complete unknown.
The finale is like a some kind of surrealist nightmare: we can hear clearly the Party at work, the circus, crazy officials, drunk policeman and people confessing to crimes they haven’t committed – the insanity and alienation of the time. Then comes the coda and we arrive in C major, the tonality of the dead. But it moves into C minor: that means (to me) that he was not ready to die yet, but there might be no future. I think the Fourth is actually a masterpiece, and competes with the 14th as his best.'
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.