An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9
Conductor Vasily Petrenko guides us through the history and analysis of Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony
Symphony No. 9 Op. 70 (1945)
Premiered: Leningrad, 1945
The Ninth Symphony should have been a glorious ode to Stalin and Russia’s heroes. Instead, Shostakovich dreamed up a subversive neo-Classical construction which cocked a snook at the cult of the leader. At 25 minutes it ends abruptly, with no apotheosis. After the premiere, the piece was not performed again until after Stalin’s death.
VASILY PETRENKO: ‘One of Stalin’s favourite dances, the Dance of the Bones, is used in the last movement. What was Shostakovich saying? The truth: that five million people died after the war of starvation, because of chaos, corruption and slow directives. People were being screwed again.
‘I’ve met a few people still alive who listened to all the first broadcasts of these war symphonies: they’ve told me how they were sitting in the kitchen listening to the Seventh, and what a powerful emotional effect it had on them; the Eighth was more challenging, but they understood it; after the Ninth they got up in silence and left the room. The message was so clear: we may have won the war, but the same guy is in charge.’
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.