Born: September 25, 1906 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
Died: August 9, 1975 in Moscow, Russia
Premiered: November 3, 1945 in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky
Throughout World War II, Dmitry Shostakovich completed three symphonies, which have come to be known as his “War Trilogy.” The Seventh Symphony, titled 'Leningrad' and completed in December 1941, was publicized by the composer as a lament for the German siege of Leningrad. It was immediately recognized as a symbol of resistance to totalitarianism in both the Soviet Union and the West, and its huge popularity brought Shostakovich international fame overnight. His Eighth Symphony, written in the aftermath of Stalin’s defeat of the Nazis, was given the name 'Stalingrad Symphony' by the Soviet government (notwithstanding its less-than-optimistic sound, which disappointed those who had hoped Shostakovich would create another propaganda work). In October 1943, as the “Great Patriotic War” seemed to be nearing its end, Shostakovich announced that he was planning to write his Ninth Symphony, this time about "the greatness of the Russian people and our Red Army liberating our native land from the enemy.”
According to those who had heard Shostakovich’s initial sketches throughout 1944 and 1945, his Ninth Symphony was surely on the path to become a celebration of victory, with a big opening tutti, a daring full score, and majestic scale and pathos. However, for unknown reasons, Shostakovich had a change of heart in the course of composition, and the end product was vastly different from when it had begun; it was light-hearted, ironic, and certainly more of a boisterous scherzo than a war epic.
The revelation of the work in Summer 1945 came with Shostakovich’s enigmatic—and prophetic—remark: “Musicians will love to play it, and critics will delight in blasting it.” While it is unclear what had caused him to pivot from his original intentions, his confession to Isaak Glikman, with whom Shostakovich exchanged letters throughout his life, indicates that he might have felt overwhelmed by the rampant anticipation of the “Victory” symphony, as well as the fear of his Ninth Symphony being compared to Beethoven’s Ninth.
Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony was premiered on November 3, 1945, by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and Yevgeniy Mrvinsky. It was well-received; the last three movements were even repeated at the audience’s demand. After the premiere, composer Gvriil Popov praised the transparency of the score, claiming it is “almost literally Mozart,” while some deemed it the "most harmonious creation” among Shostakovich’s works. However, it took a mere month for the assessment of the work to take a new turn. By December 1945, critics saw the lightweight nature of the symphony as trifle, cynical, and grotesque. Shostakovich was once again accused of neglecting to address contemporary problems. As he often did after facing harsh and dangerous denunciation, he waited a long time to write another symphony. It was nearly eight years before he took on his next symphonic work.
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An antithesis of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies in nature, the Ninth Symphony is vivacious and humorous, and one may be reminded of Haydn’s symphonies or neoclassical works such as Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. It is also the shortest of all of Shostakovich’s symphonies. There are five movements in this work, the last three being played continuously. Tempo changes signal sectional demarcation in the last section: after the lively first movement and the elegiac second movement, the music moves from Presto to Largo, and then to Allegretto. The fourth movement provides a brief respite from the air of revelry, and the haunting solo bassoon heightens the dramatic contrast in mood.
- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Music Department, Duke University