Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Opus 54

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 54

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in Saint Petersburg on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. The Symphony No. 6, composed in 1939, was first performed at the All-Soviet Music Festival on November 5 that year, Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting. The first performance in the United States, which was also the first performance outside the Soviet Union, was given on November 29, 1940, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work in December 1944, with Pierre Monteux conducting. The most recent performances, in February 2008, were given under the direction of Ingo Metzmacher. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, three clarinets (one doubling E-flat clarinet) and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, military drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, xylophone, celesta, harp, and strings. Duration: about thirty minutes.

On November 21, 1937, after finding himself in official disgrace over his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and having shrewdly locked the score of his Fourth Symphony into the desk drawer where it was to remain until 1962, Shostakovich suffered rehabilitation with the premiere of his Fifth. During 1938 he composed his String Quartet No. 1, several film scores, a suite for jazz band, and made noises about plans for a "Lenin Symphony" using texts by Mayakovsky. Somewhere, though, Lenin disappeared from the scene and the Sixth Symphony turned out purely instrumental.

The works that made big impressions at that year's All-Soviet Music Festival were Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky cantata and another bloodthirsty piece on a medieval subject, On the Field of Kulikovo by Yuri Shaporin. Shostakovich's new symphony had a friendly enough reception, but that was about it. He was not to have another hit until the premiere of the Leningrad Symphony in the summer of 1942. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, and later in this country and everywhere else, the Sixth tended to disappear in the shadow of the famous Fifth. It deserves more.

The Sixth begins at the beginning. That has not been clear to everyone. The first criticisms took umbrage at, or at least were disturbed by, the shape of the work: three movements, of which the first is slow as well as longer than the other two put together. That the second and third movements have the character and function, respectively, of scherzo and finale is obvious enough. But the opening Largo has caused commentators to say things like, "this makes the sonata-symphonic cycle incomplete" and "[it is] as though the work began with its second movement.

Clearly, the Adagio with which Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata begins does not sound like a second movement; likewise, Bach and his contemporaries always distinguished between the kind of slow movement they put at the beginning of a work and the kind they wrote for the middle. It is clear in the same way that the gestures of Shostakovich's Largo, for instance the recitative-like proclamatory unison for violas, cellos, and low woodwinds right at the start, are not the typically more flowing gestures of a second movement.

Shostakovich begins with a call to attention, a melody at once stern and lyric. A fortissimo outburst very soon by first violins with flutes and oboes presents a contrast. Later, the English horn plays a melancholy theme at first broken in continuity and narrow in range, then more connected and of wider compass. And there you have the material from which Shostakovich spins this grave exordium, using awesome compositional skill to organize music whose dynamic and coloristic range he deliberately restricts. If the palette is muted, every color is tellingly used. In particular, the movement offers a series of glorious opportunities for the solo woodwinds, especially piccolo, flute, and English horn. Altogether, this Largo lives in its length as naturally and certainly as the next two movements live in their comparative brevity.

The second movement begins with yet another woodwind solo, this one for that sinister humorist, the E-flat clarinet. The pace now is swift. A full measure goes by more quickly than half a beat of the Largo. The dark element stakes its claim firmly in this not always so funny scherzo. It is a much more ambitious and developed movement than its counterpart in the Fifth Symphony, as indeed in many respects the Sixth is a more risk-taking work than its celebrated predecessor. Once again, the scoring is brilliant, right to that puff of smoke in which the music disappears.

I suppose one thing that disconcerted Soviet critics and audiences about the Sixth Symphony was the absence of an "inspirational" finale of the type Shostakovich had given them in the Fifth. (Today there is debate over whether the imposing close of the Fifth is meant as a parody, but no one had any inkling of that in 1939.) Soviet audiences were cued to look for ideological uplift, and Shostakovich chose instead to give them fun. This is a Haydn finale, adjusted to the scale and temper of the middle of the twentieth century. Its bustling main theme is the chief reference point of an exuberant rondo whose contrasting episodes are delightfully varied. It all ends in the most uninhibited, raucous high spirits.

Our hearing of this piece, and of all of Shostakovich's music, is very different from what it was in the first heyday of his American popularity, when audiences listened to his symphonies as part of the war effort. We are free to hear it all more "musically" now; specifically, we are much more aware of Mahler's place in Shostakovich's heart and in his conception of sound. But for all his love of Mahler and the conscious assumption of Mahler’s heritage, Shostakovich's voice is very much his own. For all the receptivity of his musical temperament and through all the badgering of the commissars, he never forgot who he was.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall

More About the Music

Recordings: Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (Warner Classics)  |  Andrew Litton conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Delos)  |  Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Naxos)

Reading: Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, by Elizabeth Wilson (Princeton)  |  Shostakovich: A Life, by Laurel Fay (Oxford)  |  Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich, by Dmitri and Ludmila Sollertinsky (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

On DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Shostakovich and his Fifth Symphony, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also available at