Written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.Embed from Getty Images
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 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 too 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 a model Soviet composer, fit for export abroad.
In January 1927 Shostakovich met the conductor Bruno Walter in Leningrad and played the 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.
Shostakovich had an aunt, Nadejda Galli-Shohat, who emigrated to America, and she attended one of Stokowski’s performances 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 never-completed ballet. It has been suggested that 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. Like many young artists, Shostakovich probably did draw from adolescent sketches to complete his first largescale works. 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. But it’s a youthful version of that voice that first made an impression on listeners around the globe.
The symphony is also striking for its creative orchestration, which is sometimes so transparent it verges on chamber music. Exposed solos for violin, cello, and piano pop from bare textures. The first two movements, Allegretto and Allegro are brisk, and satirical. The expressive weight of the symphony rests on the third and fourth movements—in them you can hear a premonition of his later, more burdened music.