An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6
Conductor Vasily Petrenko guides us through the history and analysis of Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony
Symphony No. 6 Op. 54 (1939)
Premiered: Leningrad, 1939
After the success of the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich was under pressure to produce another work that spoke to the ‘people’ – and the Party. The Sixth began as a choral setting of Mayakovsky’s poem ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’, but morphed into a strangely truncated work: a vast, brooding Largo followed by two ferocious fast movements.
VASILY PETRENKO: ‘The Sixth Symphony was a very difficult one for Shostakovich to write. He didn’t want it to be flashy and popular, he wanted to go deeper into the laboratory and do some research.
And that’s why there’s this massive first movement: but how do you follow it? My instinct is that he may have been working on the first movement separately while writing the Fifth Symphony: a long, gloomy exploration of the human spirit.
‘There are two big influences here. His experiments with the symphonic form came from Mahler. Musorgsky was the inspiration for the harmonic language, a language both of purity and extremity. His work on Boris Godunov and Khovanschina left its mark.
The third movement Presto is incredibly demanding – perhaps he was testing how far he could go back to the language of the Fourth Symphony at that point.’
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.