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Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is one of his greatest achievements, a towering masterpiece of 20th century orchestral music.
The composer made a preliminary stab at the work in 1934, before abandoning a somewhat hesitant sketched opening for the piece and starting again late in 1935. The new opening is breathtakingly strong, plunging us in the very first bars into a shrill maelstrom of modernity, a colossal moving-picture of the tumult, hope and despair of the 20th century, an epic of industrialisation and mechanisation, of the conquest of energy and new means of production, of a society driven by an ever greater compulsion to speed and development. In this unspeakably frightening music, scored for an enormous orchestra, Shostakovich vividly portrays a world in which the individual voice is obliterated beneath the thunder of change. The end of this movement features a series of bleak passages scored for small collections of solo instruments, as though we were being introduced to the shocked individuals who had, as it were, somehow survived the storm.
The central movement, modelled on the famous central ‘Purgatorio’ movement of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, begins with more human, tender and caressing music, but the dance-like rhythms of its opening soon take on a disturbingly mechanical quality, like puppets being manipulated by their strings.
The final movement was composed after the composer had been subjected to a ferocious public onslaught by Stalin’s cultural watchdogs. At the end of January 1936 the article ‘Muddle instead of Music’ was published in the newspaper ‘Pravda’, mercilessly condemning his work and warning that ‘it could all end very badly’. Shostakovich begins with a funeral march on a Mahlerian scale. This transforms itself into a frenetic allegro, which then suddenly peters out into a sequence of cheap and mocking vaudeville numbers. After one last violent climax, the work ends in utter stillness with a long-held chord and the eerie sound of a celesta repeating the same broken figure over and over again.
This symphony was compulsorily withdrawn from rehearsal in 1936 and not allowed to be performed by the Soviet authorities until 1961, when it scored a worldwide triumph, reconfirming the composer’s status as one of the greatest composers of his time.
Note by Gerard McBurney