I LOVE WRITING ABOUT GREAT MUSIC as much as I love listening to it. Well… almost. The kind of composers whose music I tend to love are those who are willing to explore to the very ends of the human psyche. This is why Gustav Mahler is my joint favourite composer of symphonies. But my ‘other’ favourite composer (and for the same reason) is Dmitri Shostakovich. So it is no surprise to read that Shostakovich said, “Studying Mahler changed many things in my tastes as a composer. Mahler and Berg are my favourite composers even today”. When he was composing his Sixth Symphony in 1939, Shostakovich had just transcribed the adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony into a version for two pianos. That is a serious undertaking, about which one has to be deadly serious. And that deadly seriousness is what lies at the heart of this work, the Sixth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, which I bring before you today.

Now, I say “deadly seriousness” in spite of the fact that the last movement of this Sixth Symphony generally has the whole audience on their feet at the end in rapturous applause. But not me. While everyone else in the audience is clapping on their feet like sealions on steroids, I am quietly sitting down, weeping. You see, one has to understand the code with Shostakovich in order to ‘get’ his music. For it is never what it seems with a superficial hearing. It had to be this way. Let me explain.

After his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk opera had been denounced in 1936 by Stalin, the dictator of the USSR, the composer’s life changed substantially. The sword of Damocles hung over his head and he lived in constant fear of arrest by the secret police and subsequent liquidation (as happened to most of his friends). Six months later, he completed his epic Fourth Symphony but, knowing how challenging that music would be for the kind of cultural pigmies who ruled on what was acceptable in music in the USSR, he did not let it be premiered until twenty-five years later when it had its first performance at the Edinburgh Festival, a few years after Stalin had died. In all that time, the composer had disguised outwardly the heart-themes of his music to save his skin. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his Sixth Symphony, completed in 1939, a fateful year if ever there was one.

There are so many elements worthy of note in this symphony that I hardly know where to begin. Firstly, it is in the key of B minor — not a common key for a symphony. Which other Russian symphony was in that heartrending key? That’s right, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, known as the Pathétique, his final work. Right away, the key and that precedent gives away this symphony’s tragic nature. Secondly, a symphony traditionally has four movements — the first at a good speed marked allegro or moderato and in sonata form, the second a so-called scherzo in a light mood and often in ¾ time, the third a moving slow movement marked andante or adagio, and the fourth in a faster tempo in rondo or sonata form which brings the symphony to a fulfilling and often rousing conclusion with a noble coda. Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony breaks almost all these traditions!

Firstly, it has only three movements. The first movement is a slow, brooding largo of tragic proportions taking up nearly two-thirds of the length of the entire symphony. You are being taken to some hallowed ground here. Aside from a couple of fateful climaxes, the music of this first movement is requiemesque and heartrendingly desolate, with an almost chamber music texture in much of it, where an instrument plays solo over tremolando strings. Truly, this profound first movement functions like a symphonic poem. The composer could have put it out as such, as a complete work in itself, rather like Sibelius did with his single-movement Seventh Symphony. But that would not have been acceptable in the Soviet Union. By official directive, music had to end on an upbeat note to ensure the optimism of the workers. Shostakovich learned to take this ‘upbeatness’ to the ‘nth’ degree in a stroke of great irony, as we will see when I get to deal with the final movement below.

The second movement, which functions in the role of a scherzo marked allegro is, in my opinion, one of the greatest little pieces ever written. Shostakovich was an accomplished writer of film music and this would have suited an epic film perfectly. Really, the whole orchestra has to be virtuosos to pull this off correctly. It is really a pseudo-epic scherzo (remember that the word scherzo means ‘joke’ in Italian) which in the end becomes a parody of itself and then fizzles out, as if the beleaguered soul at the heart of the first movement (who is really a hero) could not carry the epicism off, no matter how much he tried. Tragic really.

The last movement first theme in a double-fast presto tempo is like a wisp from the William Tell overture, which the composer had actually quoted in full ironically in the first movement of his 15th Symphony. On that latter occasion he was plainly saying to the audience, “Okay, you find my real music too heavy; so here’s a lighthearted quote from the kind of superficial music which you love”. Basically, it is circus music. Knowing he had to produce a rousing finale for each symphony in order to be acceptable to the authorities, who would be sitting in judgement in the audience of premieres, yet knowing that this music is a tragic requiem reflecting the reality of his own life, Shostakovich produces circus music of great buffoonery. It is as if he is saying, “Okay, so you want to be excited at the end by upbeat music. Then here it is. Roll up, roll up, the circus is in town!” In the controversial biographical work, Testimony, Shostakovich said, “Tragedies in hindsight look like farces. When you describe your fear to someone else, it seems ridiculous”. This is an extraordinarily profound observation. That ironic ‘ridiculousness’ is, I believe, captured in its essence in the final movement of his Sixth Symphony. This is what it is saying… and it is tragic rather than triumphant. Of course, at the end, any audience being pre-programmed to do so, will rise to its feet in rapturous applause at the final notes. That is just another aspect of the tragic nature of this symphony, in which a serious composer has been forced to provide a pseudo-resolution for a tragedy for which there was none. And the only way he could do that was through music fit for the circus.

One has to appreciate the kind of atmosphere which prevailed at this time in history in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This is perfectly summed up by the conductor Mark Wrigglesworth as follows:

“The main purpose of the terror that Stalin inflicted on the Soviet people in the 1930s was simply to create fear itself. The dictator could maintain power as long as there was no unified effort to oppose him and there would not be whilst everyone was scared not only of him but of each other too. Mistrust was created by persuading as many people as possible to denounce their fellow citizens as enemies of the state. Denouncing in fact became one of the main ways to survive. Children even denounced their parents. One man alone denounced 230 people, all of whom would have been either executed or sent to prison. There was no ideology involved. Stalin preferred people to support him through fear rather than conviction as he was well aware that convictions could not be relied on. He had decided that 5% of the population was an appropriate level of arrests to maintain and to do this a certain quota was needed every week. To meet these quotas, the charges brought were often absurd. One village lost all its men aged between 20 and 50, accused of sabotage by sowing the crops too late. One district, in order to meet its target of 3,800 arrests, decided to rearrest every prisoner who had been released the previous year. Any contact with foreigners was equally disastrous. A doctor who had treated a German consul was arrested, as was an opera singer who danced with the Japanese ambassador. One man was executed for receiving a pair of shoes from abroad. A woman got a similar punishment for saying that a certain disgraced general was quite handsome. There was not a single thinking adult who did not at some time expect to be arrested or shot. The writer Isaak Babel observed that ‘a man could only talk freely with his wife and even then only at night, with the blankets pulled over their heads.’ Every man became an island. People lived in extreme dread at night and with an intense effort by day to pretend that they were enthusiastic for the system”.

That pretence at being “enthusiastic for the system” is what we hear encoded into the last of the three movements in Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony. Pseudo-enthusiasm just to satisfy the authorities and those subservient to them. This is why I weep at the end of this work. Shostakovich had described how in 1937 he slept on the landing of his apartment block near the top of the stairs, so that his family sleeping within the apartment would not be disturbed when the secret police arrived for him at 3am. Now here’s the thing: Shostakovich said as an official statement with huge irony of his Sixth Symphony, “The symphony is an effort to convey the mood of spring, joy and life,” Hahaha! Nice one, Shosti! We know the truth. The tragic truth. We understand your code. And it tears us apart. Normally, in any true symphony, there is some cohesion between the various movements, and all the themes of the previous movements are unified in the final movement to bring some kind of resolution. I ask you honestly, do any of the three movements in this symphony seem to bear any relation to any of the other two? It’s a rhetorical question, because I already know the answer.

Just to convey something of Shostakovich’s mindset when writing this work, here are some quotes from him: “It was a difficult and mean time, unbelievably mean and hard. Every day brought more bad news and I felt so much pain. I was so lonely and afraid”.

“Probably many people think that I came back to life after the Fifth Symphony. No. I came back to life after the Seventh”. Thus, he was still as-though-dead when composing and premiering his Sixth.

Finally, he said, “So many unsaid things collect in the soul, so much exhaustion and irritation lie as a heavy burden on the psyche. And you must, you must unburden your spiritual world or risk a collapse”. This is what he did. He unburdened his inner world in his music — in code in his symphonies, and with his heart on his sleeve in his string quartets.

This recording that I have chosen to share with you is a magnificent performance from the Pärnu Music Festival in Estonia in 2016, with the Estonian Festival Orchestra conducted by the Estonian conductor, Paavo Järvi. I love all this conductor’s performances. He is so clear and noble. This young orchestra is also amazing. They play this music as if their lives depended on it. The tempi which he has chosen are perfect. The brooding gravitas of the first movement. The thrilling ride of the second (well, until it collapses). The absolute inane madness of the final movement — like a dance of death. The playing of the strings and woodwinds is superb, especially the clarinets, flute and piccolo. You will not hear a greater performance than this. I hope it affects you in the manner in which it should. Only 30 minutes of your life. What have you to lose, with everything to gain? Remember, great music can change your DNA! 😉