Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor

Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Opus 10

Dmitri Dmitrieivich Shostakovich
BORN
: September 25, 1906. Saint Petersburg, Russia
DIED: August 9, 1975. Moscow

COMPOSED: December 1925. The symphony was Shostakovich’s graduation exercise for Maximilian Steinberg’s composition course at the Leningrad Conservatory

WORLD PREMIERE: May 12, 1926. Nicolai Malko conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic

EUROPEAN PREMIERE: May 5, 1927. Bruno Walter brought the work and the name of its composer to the attention of Western Europe at a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic

US PREMIERE: November 2, 1928. Leopold Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1950. Artur Rodzinski conducted. MOST RECENT—November 2008. James Gaffigan conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, tromba contralto (a valved trombone in trumpet form, sounding an octave below the natural trumpet in F), 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, bells, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 28 mins

THE BACKSTORY  “I grew up in a musical family,” Shostakovich wrote in 1956. “My mother, Sophia Vasilievna, studied at the Conservatory for some years and was a good pianist. My father, Dmitri Boleslavovich, was a great lover of music and sang well. There were many music-lovers among the friends and acquaintances of the family, all of whom took part in our musical evenings. I also remember the strains of music that came from the neighboring apartment of an engineer who was an excellent cellist and passionately fond of chamber music. With a group of his friends he often played quartets and trios by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Borodin, and Tchaikovsky. I used to go out into the hallway and sit there for hours, the better to hear the music. In our apartment, too, we held amateur musical evenings. All this impressed itself on my musical memory and played a certain part in my future work as a composer.

“My mother wanted her children to have a good musical education. When my older sister, Marusia, was nine, my mother began giving her piano lessons. Three years later, when I reached the same age, my mother insisted that I take my place at the piano. Marusia became a professional musician and today teaches piano at the Leningrad Ballet School and also the obligatory piano class at the Leningrad Conservatory. My younger sister, Zoya, could not avoid her piano lessons, but did not follow a musical career, being trained instead as a veterinary surgeon.”

An aunt remembered the young Shostakovich as “a very serious and sensitive child, often very meditative . . . and rather shy,” fond of fairy tales, forever composing or improvising at the piano, though inclined to be modest about his music, reading Gogol, practicing Liszt, but loving Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov most of all. The same aunt, Nadezhda Gaili-Shohat, told her nephew’s biographer V.I. Seroff that when she first heard the Symphony No. 1, she was astonished to recognize in it many fragments she had heard him play as a young boy, some of them associated with, among other matters, La Fontaine’s fable of the grasshopper and the ant and Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Little Mermaid.” It was clear that music was to be central in the boy’s life and that in spite of all financial hardships—and these were considerable in the Shostakovich family—his gift had to be protected and nurtured. Well prepared, first at home, then at Glyaser’s Music School, he was admitted to the Conservatory in Petrograd (as Saint Petersburg was then called) in 1919.

His principal teacher in composition was Maximilian Steinberg, himself a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, and Liadov. Steinberg married Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter Nadezhda, and it was as a wedding present for them that Stravinsky wrote his orchestral scherzo Fireworks. Steinberg’s own musical inclinations were academic-conservative, but he was a good teacher, able to help his pupil become articulate in a language many of whose details can hardly have been to the older man’s taste. Moreover, when the plan for a Leningrad Philharmonic performance of the First Symphony seemed about to be shipwrecked because Shostakovich had no money to pay for the copying of orchestra parts, the conservatory undertook to foot the bill, something that would not have been done without Steinberg’s support.

THE MUSIC  The opus number is a bit startling. Shostakovich came to think of only one of his pre-First Symphony works as worth publishing, the Three Fantastic Dances for Piano, Opus 5, but he did come to the challenge of writing his graduation symphony as a surprisingly experienced composer, even of orchestral works (two scherzos, a set of variations, and a group of fables for mezzo-soprano). In the symphony itself, the assurance with which Shostakovich both imagines and realizes a large-scale structure is as impressive as the vigor and freshness of gesture. One can hear what music he has been reading and listening to, and what has delighted him. He owes, for example, some of the details of his nose-thumbing, wrong-note humor to Prokofiev, he is fascinated by Mahler and his ways of twisting the tails of commonplaces, and more than once we see Stravinsky’s Petrushka raging in his cell or fixing us with his stare from the top of his master’s booth. The basic design, too, is that of the conventional four movements, though with the scherzo second and the slow movement third (in itself a very conventional unconventionality). Throughout, though, Shostakovich finds ways of playing within that form, producing events in unexpected order, interrupting, linking, reverting. The contour of the phrase played by the clarinet when the first movement has made the transition from provocatively discontinuous introduction into the “real” discourse, is in one way or another common ground for much of the entire symphony. Shostakovich’s orchestral imagination is highly developed, such points as the passages for divided solo strings in the first and last movements, the piano writing in the scherzo, and the timpani solo in the finale being the most immediately noticeable instances. The slow movement in particular is evidence that at eighteen and nineteen he had much to say, and much of astonishing depth, and every phrase is a wonderful signal of the arrival on the scene of a new, eloquent, personal, unmistakable voice.

—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: 
Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Royal Philharmonic (Decca)  |  Leonard Bernstein with the Chicago Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony)  |  Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Classics)

Online: Keeping Score: Shostakovich Fifth Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at keepingscore.org and on iTunes and Amazon)

ReadingShostakovich: 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)  |  Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, by Boris Schwarz (Indiana University Press)

(October 2017)