August 1945 at the Soviet Composers’ Rest Home near Ivanovo (about 150 miles NE of Moscow)
November 3, 1945 by the Leningrad Philharmonic, conducted by Evgeny Mravinsky
Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony was composed over a short span of four weeks in August 1945—only three months after the Allied victory in Europe. It was not Shostakovich’s first attempt at the symphony, though, and he had actually performed ten minutes of the first version for his friend Isaak Glickman earlier that April.1 Dissatisfied, Shostakovich set aside his initial attempt and proceeded to create the version of the Ninth Symphony that we all know today. Five days after the score’s completion, Shostakovich and Sviatoslav Richter premiered the piano reduction at the Moscow Composers’ Union. The orchestral premiere was given on November 3rd by the Leningrad Philharmonic as the headlining event in a festival celebrating the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Shostakovich was pleased with the premiere, writing:
My Ninth Symphony is very difficult to perform. But from the very first rehearsals, the orchestra dealt easily with all the technical difficulties and achieved a high level of artistry and expressiveness. This symphony also has a number of solos, there are big solos for all the woodwind instruments, the trumpet, the trombones, and the violin. These solos should be free, expressive, and light. This is especially true of the bassoon, which is heard throughout the entire fourth movement and fifth movement. Bassoonist Vorobyov succeeded brilliantly with this far-from-easy task… The orchestra performed superbly both in individual groups and as a whole. I repeat, the orchestra’s work on the Ninth Symphony gave me immense enjoyment.2
The Ninth Symphony expected of Shostakovich was very different from the Ninth Symphony he delivered. His previous two symphonies were grand affairs of over an hour in length, and each required a massive orchestra. These symphonies were also thematically tied to the ongoing war: his Seventh Symphony appeared to chronicle the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, while his Eighth portrayed the turning of the war as the Russians drove the Nazis back into Germany. It was subsequently expected by all that, for his Ninth Symphony, Shostakovich would deliver a grand apotheosis to Stalin that celebrated the end of the war, and ultimately completed his epic “war trilogy” of symphonies. In spite of these expectations—and, in fact, likely because of them—Shostakovich instead delivered a short, small-scale neoclassical work that had more in common with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony than with the Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven or Mahler.
The controversy was immediate, beginning with the premiere of the piano reduction. After the performance, Shostakovich reportedly stood up and remarked to the assembled crowd of Soviet and foreign press: “It is a merry little piece. Musicians will love to play it, and critics will delight in blasting it.”3 Shostakovich’s prediction of the critical reception his new symphony would receive was quite accurate, and one particularly harsh London reviewer even wrote that he “substituted only a farrago of circus tunes, gallop rhythms, and dated harmonic quirks whose smart cleverness resembles the tea-table talk of an ultra-precocious child.”4
Those who did not immediately dismiss the Ninth Symphony as some sort of "musical prank" by Shostakovich were left to formulate their own theories concerning its abrupt shift in tone in the fourth movement. A common view among many critics and historians is that the bassoon line represents a somber memorial for those lost during the Great War. Israel Nestyev, for example, writes that the bassoon “pronounces a speech over the grave.”5 Biographer Ivan Martynov offers a similar interpretation:
It is astonishing in its depth of tragedy, which at first may seem out of place in light and merry music of the symphony. But this is not so. The Largo is the necessary turning point in the development, the solitary peak from which there opens before us that wide perspective so necessary for understanding the inner meaning of the whole work. It is a return to the past which is impossible to forget, even amidst the joys of peaceful life. This minute of concentrated silence is a tribute of love and endless gratitude to those who saved the world and gave humanity back the very possibility of work and happiness. The Soviet artist Shostakovich could not forget these people at this minute of happy festivity. The very presence of the Largo gives the music of the Symphony a special philosophic significance.6
The true meaning of the bassoon solo, however, will likely never be known—Shostakovich left no written program, and the accuracy of remarks made in his memoirs remains questionable.7
1 Ian MacDonald, The New Shostakovich (London: Pimlico, 2006), 196.
2 Manashir Iakubov, ed. “Symphony No. 9, Op. 70,” In Dmitri Shostakovich: New Collected Works, Series 1, Symphonies, Vol. 9 (Moscow: DSCH Publishers, 2000), 122. Quote originally taken from Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony in Moscow, Bulletin of the Moscow State Philharmonic, 1945.
3 Downes, 859.
4 Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective (New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 177.
5 David Rabinovich; George Hanna, trans., Dmitri Shostakovich (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1959), 99.
6 Ivan Martynov; T. Guralsky, trans., Shostakovich: The Man and His Work (New York: Philosphical Library, 1947), 151.
7 Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, claimed that Testimony was mostly a compilation of third-hand rumors and anecdotes.