Program notes for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, January 12–13, 2018, and on tour to Palm Desert; Santa Barbara; University of California, Davis; and Stanford University; January 15–19, 2018. © Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.
In the mid-1920s, a decade before Dmitri Shostakovich was denounced by Stalin and made to fear for his life, his troubles were simply those of a student: not enough money, conflicts with teachers, and shaky confidence in his own work. He held evening jobs playing piano in cinemas, which he detested, while studying at the Leningrad Conservatory.
Shostakovich began his Symphony No. 1 in F Minor as a conservatory assignment, and it became his graduation piece. At first he was dismissive, writing in October 1924, “Now I’m writing a symphony … which is quite bad, but I have to write it so that I can be done with the conservatory this year.” He grew more invested in the project and defended it from the criticism of his teacher, Maximilian Steinberg, who thought its drafts were excessively grotesque. By May of 1925, Shostakovich completed a two-piano version of the symphony, which he played for his teachers as a final exam. He passed, and was pleased with his work, but could not have expected it would soon bring him international fame.
The public premiere of the complete, orchestrated symphony came a year later, in May 1926, with the Leningrad Philharmonic, on a special concert presented by the Leningrad Association for Contemporary Music. It was an immediate success, pleasing both the composer and the public. It also established Shostakovich as an emblematic Soviet composer, fit for export abroad.
In January 1927, Shostakovich met the conductor Bruno Walter in Leningrad and played his new symphony on the piano for him. Walter was impressed and promised to perform the piece in Germany with the Berlin Philharmonic. Shostakovich attended the concert the following spring, traveling at the expense of the Soviet government, though he chose to sit anonymously in the hall, unacknowledged.
From Europe, the piece spread to the United States, where it was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski in 1928 (five years before the United States and the Soviet Union would establish diplomatic relations). It was first taken up by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1939, under the direction of the Mexican composer and conductor Carlos Chávez.
Shostakovich’s aunt, Nadezhda, had emigrated to America, where she heard a performance of her nephew’s symphony. She later told a biographer that she recognized themes from his childhood piano improvisations and early, now-lost compositions. The final two movements are tenuously linked to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”—a story which interested Shostakovich and inspired sketches for a ballet he left incomplete. Under one interpretation, the dramatic snare drum roll linking the third and fourth movements of the symphony represents the mermaid’s transition from the underwater world to the land of human beings.
Whatever the sources, there is an unmistakable collage quality to the First Symphony. And it’s very plausible that—like many young artists—Shostakovich drew from adolescent sketches to complete his first largescale work. The process of revisiting and reworking is part of what gives a composer a distinctive voice, and already in the Symphony No. 1, you can hear the recognizable voice of Shostakovich. It is not as harrowed as his later works, and its sarcastic edges gleam with acerbity more than grim irony. But it’s this youthful voice that first made an impression on listeners around the globe, who had never before heard of Shostakovich, and had no idea of his later (now nearly mythologized) torment.
The symphony is also striking for its creative orchestration, sometimes surprisingly thin, verging on chamber music. Exposed solos pop from bare textures, with especially prominent roles for the concertmaster, principal cello, and piano. The first two movements, Allegretto and Allegro (also called a scherzo in Shostakovich’s notes)—are lean, brisk, and satirical. The expressive weight of the symphony rests on the third and fourth movements. In them you can hear a premonition of the later symphonies in his towering output.