Symphony No.9 in E-flat major, Op.70

Already in the autumn of 1943, the authorities required DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH to create a work glorifying the expected future victory in the war. He promised that he would write a great symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra, a kind of analogue of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was not until early 1945, at a meeting with students, that the composer said he had begun work on a new symphony, and it is clear from the surviving sketches that he did indeed originally intend a lavish formal work. But the work was difficult and he soon rejected this option. He resumed work with a completely different concept as late as July 26th  and quickly completed his Symphony No. 9 on August, 30th . At the beginning of September Shostakovich and Sviatoslav Richter played it four hands in front of a small circle of musicians and friends. The symphony was premiered on November, 3rd  1945 in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky, and on  November 20th   it was performed in Moscow.

THE SYMPHONY No. 9 was met with surprise, bewilderment, and criticism. After the two tragic Leningrad Seventh (1941) and Eighth (1943), everyone expected his triad of war symphonies to end with a grand triumphant work, but instead a relatively short symphony, about half an hour long, without an apotheosis choral finale, appeared. “They wanted from me a fanfare, an ode,” the composer says in his memoirs, recorded by Solomon Volkov. “They wanted me to write a majestic Ninth Symphony. Everybody was glorifying Stalin and I had to join in this unholy work. And they wanted Shostakovich to use a four-piece band of brass, chorus and soloists to hail the leader. Moreover, Stalin found the number Nine very advantageous: he could say – here it is, our national Nine.” Naturally, Stalin was highly annoyed; according to Shostakovich, “he was deeply offended that there was no choir, no soloists. And no apotheosis. There was not even a paltry dedication. But I couldn’t write an apotheosis of Stalin, I just couldn’t.” After all that the composer himself and his entourage had suffered during the years of Stalin’s terror, even the expectation of new reprisals against him could not break the conscience of the great artist and humanist.

Various interpretations of this 5-movement work have begun (the last three movements are linked), in which the initial serene vitality of an almost classical type of symphonism is followed by a mournful inward lyricism, the dynamic unstoppable momentum evolving into profound tragedy, to then transform into luminous, whimsical, seemingly Mahlerian images.  Soviet critics denounced the symphony for its “ideological weakness” and its failure to “reflect the true spirit of the Soviet people”; some called it a lyric-comedy work with dramatic elements, a tragic-satirical pamphlet, describing it as a copy of Haydn and a clumsy imitation of Chaplin’s Grimm.  What remains to be proposed is that the Ninth Symphony is a kind of respite, a light and amusing interlude between Shostakovich’s significant creations, a temporary rejection of great, serious problems for the sake of playful, filigree-trimmed trifles. But is it the right time for a great artist to go on vacation, to take a break from contemporary problems?” wrote the authoritative musicologist I. Nestyev. Even according to an American critic, The Russian composer should not have expressed his feelings about the defeat of Nazism in such a childish manner.” But many musicians liked the symphony’s ‘light, air and joy’ and appreciate – albeit informally – its bold ‘ridicule of all kinds of hypocrisy, pseudo-monumentality and bombastic pomposity’. This is the muted rebellion of an artist who, by refusing to celebrate victory in the manner demanded by Stalin, not only confronted the dictator’s power but also, in a way, belittled it in his music.

The Ninth Symphony did not receive the Stalin Prize offered by Shostakovich’s colleagues, and after the famous Decree of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks of February 14th  1948, in which Shostakovich was also accused of formalism, it, along with his other works, was banned and not performed until 1955.

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