The following comments of mine were prompted by a recent, rather wishy washy review by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini of Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh symphony:
“At the Philharmonic, a Screaming Reflection on War”
By Anthony Tommasini
The New York Times
November 30, 2018
Excerpts from the Tommasini review follow, along with comments of my own that I made in a letter to a friend. (My comments are in boldface.)
— Roger W. Smith
Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony is a sprawling score that heaves, blasts, marches and meanders for nearly 80 minutes. Written in 1941, while Hitler’s forces were devastating Leningrad in a siege that would last 900 days and take at least a million lives, the work practically screams, “This is a big statement!”
And scream it did on Thursday at Geffen Hall, where Jaap van Zweden led the New York Philharmonic in a performance of the “Leningrad” that was intense and powerful — sometimes overly so.
Shostakovich began composing this symphony, his seventh, before the German invasion. Debates continue over whether he intended it as a grim portrait of a historic city under siege, or as a more general cry against tyranny. Are there coded, anti-Stalinist messages in the piece? And are those long stretches of militaristic-sounding marches bitterly ironic?
I am aware of divergence of critics on these points.
Mr. van Zweden seemed to take the piece at face value — in the best sense. He laid out this shifting score clearly, letting it speak for itself. He pushed the orchestra to blaring extremes at times, but the excessiveness of the music may call for that. (Critics who question the symphony’s merits, including Virgil Thomson, have found it obvious and steeped in banality.)
I wonder about this. Thomson is not NECESSARILY wrong, but I know the seventh well and find much to admire in it.
From the Philharmonic strings, Mr. van Zweden drew a dark, deep tone in the opening theme: a stern yet elusive melodic line, played in unison, that is soon goaded by bursts of drums and trumpets. The transition from there into a quizzically lyrical passage was deftly handled.
The most curious section of the nearly half-hour first movement comes when you expect a development section to begin. Instead, a snare drum plays an obsessive march rhythm. Over it, individual instruments, then groups, play what sounds like a jaunty march tune — over and over. Each statement becomes bigger, louder and more elaborately orchestrated. This roughly 10-minute section has aptly been described as Shostakovich’s “Boléro.” Mr. van Zweden and the orchestra played it straight, building inexorably to an assaultive fortissimo climax.
I don’t like Ravel’s “Boléro.” I know this passage in Shostakovich’s seventh well. I am not crazy about it. … Shostakovich often surprises.
The Philharmonic’s high level of the performance continued throughout the symphony: the second movement’s cross between a scherzo and lyrical reminiscence; the restless slow movement; and the often frenzied finale, which drives toward of seemingly triumphant (or bitter?) coda of victory.
Composer and critic Virgil Thomson is known for having been highly critical of Shostakovich and composers similar to him, such as Sibelius. His caustic remarks on Shostakovich’s seventh are frequently quoted. The review quoted has, I would suspect, been rarely read in its entirely and it is not available online. I am posting the entire review here.
Whether one is able to listen without mind-wandering to the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich probably depends on the rapidity of one’s music perceptions. It seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted. In this respect it differs from nearly all the other symphonies in the world in which abnormal length is part and parcel of the composer’s concept. Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s Ninth and Eighth, Bruckner’s Seventh and the great Brahms “machines” are long because they could not have been made any shorter without eliminating something the author wanted in. Their mater is complex and cannot be expounded briefly.
Its Length Is Arbitrary
The Shostakovich piece on the other hand is merely a stretching out of material that is in no way deep or difficult to understand. The stretching itself is not even a matter of real though possibly unnecessary development. It is for the most part straight banal repetition. The piece seems to be the length it is not because the substance would brook no briefer expression but because for some reason not inherent in the material the composer wishes it that way. Of what the reason could possibly be I have only the vaguest notion. That the reason was clear to its author I have not the slightest doubt, however, because the piece all through bears the marks of complete assurance. It is no pent up outpouring out of personal feelings and still less an encyclopedic display of musical skill. It is interminably straightforward and withal is limited in spiritual scope as a film like “The Great Zigfield” or “Gone With the Wind.” It could have said what it says in fifteen minutes or it could have gone on for two hours more. The proportions of the work seem to this auditor, in short, wholly arbitrary.
Its Content Is Tame
They do not seem, nevertheless, accidental. Nothing seems accidental in this piece. The themes are clearly thought out and their doings are simplified with a master’s hand. The harmonies, the contrapuntal web, the orchestration show no evidence of floundering or of experiment. If the music has no mystery and consequently no real freedom of thought, neither does it obtain any obscurity or any evidence of personal frustration. It is as objective as an editorial, as self-assured as the news report of a public ceremony.
Heretofore this author’s music, whether theatrical or symphonic, has been animated by an instinct for easy theatrical values. He has put into his works with never-failing effect crowd scenes, barcarolles, burlesques and patriotic finales, holding these all together with a kind of neutral continuity-writing in two-part counterpoint. The most entertaining of these numbers have always been burlesques of bourgeois musical taste, which were the more charming for their being purged, as it were, of bitterness by the optimism of the final patriotic and military passages. One could always feel in them the rambunctious but gifted boy whose heart was really in the right place. In spite of the static and not very significant character of the innocent two-part counterpoint between, his “production numbers,” if one may call them that in symphonic music, have always been bright, full of gusto and genuinely characteristic of their composer. They have put us in contact with a real person.
The Seventh Symphony has the same formal structure as the rest of its author’s work. It is series of production numbers interspersed with neutral matter written chiefly in that same two-part counterpoint. There is a mechanized military march and the usual patriotic ending, neither of them quite as interesting or imaginative as they might be. And the rest of the episodes are tamer. The pastorale and the Protestant chorale are competent routine stuff, no more, and the continuity-counterpoint, though less static than usual, just sort of runs on as if some cinematic narrative were in progress that needed neutral accompaniment. The opening passage, which is said to represent the good Soviet citizen, is bold and buoyant. But nowhere is there any real comedy, which is what Shostakovich does best.
It is no reproach to an author to say that one of his works is the kind of work it is. And this work is certainly of more sober mien than most of its author’s others. It is very long and very serious, and both these qualities are certainly deliberate observances. The facile competence and the assurance of the whole thing, moreover, eliminate the possibility that any auditor find the struggle between the artiest and the material a major subject of interest. It is easy to listen to the piece, equally easy to skip any part of it without missing the sense of the whole. It is excellent journalism, and some of it can be remembered. But it will probably not make much difference to anybody’s inner musical life whether he hears it or doesn’t.
Its Author Is Growing Up and Not Very Prettily
Shostakovich is an abundant musician, a “natural” composer. He is also an experienced and perfectly assured one. Heretofore he has maintained a boyish taste for low comedy (redeemed by sincere patriotic sentiment) that gave gusto to his writing and made listening to it sometimes fun. The present work shows a wish to put boyish things behind him and a complete ability to do so without losing confidence in himself. That it is less amusing than his previous works is not to its discredit. That it is, in spite of its serious air and pretentious proportions, thin of substance, unoriginal and shallow indicates that the mature production of this gifted master is likely to be on the stuffy side. That he has deliberately diluted his matter, adapted it, both by excessive simplification and by excessive repetition to the comprehension of a child of eight indicates that he is willing to write down to a real or fictious psychology of mass-consumption in a way that may eventually disqualify him for consideration as a serious composer.
— Virgil Thomson, “Shostakovich’s Seventh,” New York Herald Tribune, October 18, 1942, pg. E7
In an earlier review of a performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, Thomson stated:
The Shostakovich Seventh Symphony is easy to listen to but hard to keep the mind on. It is easy to follow because the tunes are simple, the counterpoint thin and the orchestration very broad and plain. It is experienced work by a man of thoroughly musical mentality; and it is apparently designed for easy listening, perhaps even with a thought to making it possible for the radio listener to miss some of the repetitions without losing anything essential. It is hard to keep one’s attention on it at a concert hall because it repeats itself so much. One gets to thinking about something else while waiting for the next section.
As usual with Shostakovich, the quiet passages are less effective that the noisy ones. [italics added] Even these, with doubled brass and seven men at the battery, are not especially rousing. Like everything else in the work they are a little too simple to be interesting. The symphony seems to need film accompaniment, something to occupy the mind while it goes on and to explain the undue stretching out of all its sections. I do not find the work objectionable in spirit, and it is certainly sincere and competent music-making. I merely find it thin in substance.
— Virgil Thomson, “Imperfect Workmanship,” New York Herald Tribune, October 15, 1942, pg. 18
I don’t, in the final analysis, agree with Thomson. I like Thomson’s music. And he writes very well. He was justifiably regarded as a very good critic. I don’t mind incisive criticism like this even when I disagree with it. It makes me think.
With a Shostakovich symphony, you never know what to expect. There are deep thought and great ingenuity in all his works. Somewhat like Beethoven, his symphonies (with the possible exception of the second and third symphonies) tend to hold their own, none “copying” another. Each one is a remarkable work.
Yet, the greatest works of art can be uneven. “Perfect” construction is not necessarily desirable or a virtue. Samuel Johnson said as much in a comment about Milton’s Paradise Lost:
In every work one part must be for the sake of others; a palace must have passages; a poem must have transitions. It is no more to be required that wit should always be blazing, than that the sun should always stand at noon. In a great work there is a vicissitude of luminous and opaque parts, as there is in the world a succession of day and night.
— Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” Lives of the Poets
Take Beethoven’s Ninth, for example. An inferior work? Yet, at times the construction seems sort of messy. How does the “Ode to Joy” fit into the work? Is it strident? Too much? An emotional outpouring that amounts to overblown sentiment?
Shostakovich has been accused of writing such music and of being inferior to supposedly more cerebral composers such as Stravinsky. Was Beethoven’s music at times too romantic? Is Shostakovich’s music as times too patriotic? Such questions seem nonsensical to me.
Shostakovich, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above most twentieth century composers, including those who were trying to show primarily how clever or innovative they were. Shostakovich is a brilliant “musical thinker,” and, on top of that, one continually encounters passages of deep feeling and startling beauty.
Thomson’s assertion that “the quiet passages [in Shostakovich’s works] are less effective that the noisy ones” is flat out wrong. Here are some examples from the symphonies that demonstrate just the opposite:
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 (“Leningrad”)
Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 (“The Year 1905”)
Adagio (Eternal Memory)
Only one of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets had been published when Shostakovich’s seventh symphony was premiered. Had Thomson been familiar with the quartets and other later works of Shostakovich — such as the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, premiered in 1952 — he might have had a deeper and fuller appreciation of the composer’s’ oeuvre.
* The third movement of Shostakovich’s eleventh, “Eternal Memory,” starts with a halting motion on pizzicato strings, over which a noble melody (‘You Fell As Victims’, most famous of all the revolutionary songs and whose deployment was by no means limited to Soviet composers) is heard on violas then extended to upper strings. A sombre new theme, heard initially on woodwind and brass before being transformed on violins, begins the ascent to the apex, at the summit of which the climactic motif from the previous movement is sounded out balefully on full orchestra, underpinned by pounding timpani that continue as the intensity subsides. The viola melody, now a distant recessional, is heard again before pizzicato strings arrive at a questioning pause. [Program notes, recording of the eleventh symphony by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.]
The sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin mentions this revolutionary song and Shostakovich’s eleventh symphony in his autobiography, A Long Journey.
Shostakovich’s seventh has much in common with his eleventh symphony, another work comprised of program music of great beauty and power. See my previous post:
Shostakovich, symphony no. 11 (“The Year 1905”); Шостакович, Симфония № 11 («1905-й год»)