Symphony No. 4 (Shostakovich)

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Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Opus 43, between September 1935 and May 1936, after abandoning some preliminary sketch material. In January 1936, halfway through this period, Pravda—under direct orders from Joseph Stalin[1]—published an editorial "Muddle Instead of Music" that denounced the composer and targeted his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Despite this attack, and despite the oppressive political climate of the time, Shostakovich completed the symphony and planned its premiere for December 1936 in Leningrad. At some point during rehearsals he changed his mind and withdrew the work. It was premiered on 30 December 1961 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra led by Kirill Kondrashin.


The work is in three movements and lasts approximately one hour. The outer movements each last 25 minutes or more, while the middle movement only takes some eight or nine minutes.

I. Allegretto, poco moderato - Presto - Tempo 1°

If the first movement of a symphony is to be expected as following the rules of traditional sonata form fairly closely, then the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement initially comes across as a disorienting surprise. Closer examination reveals what has been described as "a hide and seek relationship with sonata form." Even more detailed study shows that Shostakovich is using his favored version of sonata form, wherein the recapitulation presents the material from the exposition in reverse order. The composer’s very effective obscuring of this approach makes understanding the movement’s structure quite difficult compared to most of his other symphonies. The following table lays out some points to consider:
Sonata-form elements Shostakovich's obscuration techniques
Two contrasting main themes Main themes surrounded by significant secondary material
Themes go through developmental processes and eventually re-appear in something akin to original forms Secondary material receives much more attention than customary
Tonic key anchors opening and closing Themes reappear in recapitulation in reverse order & opposite orchestration
Second theme initially appears in a contrasting key First appearances of main themes in exposition separated by much intervening music
Recapitulation begins with same introductory music as exposition Contrasts of tonality not often used to distinguish thematic or structural areas
First theme area and second theme area approximately the same size Recapitulation much shorter than other main sections
Substantial thematic "development" takes place within exposition section.
Because of the many elements that conceal, the movement seems to be little more than a free fantasia consisting of almost nothing except development, making the true arrival of the second theme and the development section especially difficult to ascertain. The crazed, high-speed fugato for the strings that appears partway through the development section is probably the most extreme example in the movement of thematic development seemingly unrelated to the main material, even though it actually has its roots in the first theme.

II. Moderato, con moto

This movement is a Mahler-like ländler/intermezzo in rondo form where two contrasting themes appear in alternation, both being imaginatively transformed and recombined upon their variant returns. At times the movement recalls the scherzi from Mahler's Second and Seventh symphonies, even down to details of scoring or melodic shape. The movement ends with the final statement of the first theme accompanied by a “ticking” passage for castanets, wood block, and snare drum.[2]

III. Largo - Allegro

The answers to most structural questions in the first movement become reasonably evident after sustained investigation, while such questions hardly exist in the second movement. The third movement, although comparable in scope to the first, superficially appears to offer fewer problems to the listener. Yet serious study, far from providing ready answers or even any confirmation of hunches, often serves only to heighten perplexity. Does the movement have four reasonably self-contained sections? Five? Is there some other general architectural plan in place? How self-contained are the sections? Just where do sections begin and end? What differentiates sections? How do sections relate to one another? The questions persist and do not get completely resolved even after one has settled upon a provisional structure—which may well not match another person’s resolution.
The shadow of Mahler looms large behind the entire symphony, nowhere more so than in the opening minutes of the finale. This formidable and occasionally somewhat bitter funeral march ultimately leads into a lengthy series of fast-moving episodes frequently dominated by a feeling of the waltz. These episodes cover a wide range of moods, now light-hearted, now pensive, now ironically silly, now ambiguous—and they often combine more than one of these at a time—but all suggest dance rhythms in one way or another. The last section of the movement, appearing after all sense of the dance has evaporated, recalls aspects of the opening funeral march but reverses it (by beginning loud and ultimately dying away) and gives it an emotional intensity nearly unrivalled in Shostakovich’s output.
The range of expression to be found here represents another confounding element. This has led some to see the final movement operating at a far deeper level than the preceding two, not only in range and complexity of feeling but also in quality of imagination,[3] while others have not been so convinced by the apparent hodgepodge of styles. Hugh Ottaway, for example, called the close "a magnificent non sequitur".[2]


Shostakovich uses an immense orchestra in this work, requiring well over one hundred musicians. This, combined with the extreme technical and emotional demands placed on the performers, makes the Symphony No. 4 among his least-performed scores, yet it ranks as one of his most important and personal works.[citation needed]

It is scored for the following instruments:[4]

Historical overview


Shostakovich began the Fourth Symphony in September 1935. His Second and Third symphonies, completed in 1927 and 1929, had been patriotic works with choral finales, but the new score was different. Toward the end of 1935 he told an interviewer, "I am not afraid of difficulties. It is perhaps easier, and certainly safer, to follow a beaten path, but it is also dull, uninteresting and futile."[5]

Shostakovich abandoned sketches for the symphony some months earlier and began anew. On 28 January 1936, when he was about halfway through work on the symphony, Pravda printed an unsigned editorial entitled "Chaos Instead of Music," which singled out his internationally successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for particularly savage condemnation. The fact that the editorial was unsigned indicated that it represented the official Party position. Rumors circulated for a long time that Stalin had directly ordered this attack after he attended a performance of the opera and stormed out after the first act.[6]

Pravda published two more articles in the same vein in the next two and a half weeks. On 3 February, "Ballet Falsehood" assailed his ballet The Limpid Stream, and "Clear and Simple Language in Art" appeared on 13 February. Although this last article was technically an editorial attacking Shostakovich for "formalism", it appeared in the "Press Review" section. Stalin, under cover of the Central Committee may have singled out Shostakovich because the plot and music of Lady Macbeth infuriated him, the opera contradicted Stalin's intended social and cultural direction for the nation at that period, he resented the recognition Shostakovich was receiving both in the Soviet Union and in the West.[7]

Despite these criticisms, Shostakovich continued work on the symphony—though he simultaneously refused to allow a concert performance of the last act of Lady Macbeth.[8] He explained to a friend, "The audience, of course, will applaud—it's considered bon ton to be in the opposition, and then there'll be another article with a headline like 'Incorrigible Formalist.'"[9]

Once he completed the score, Shostakovich was apparently uncertain how to proceed. His new symphony did not emulate the style of Nikolai Myaskovsky's socialist realist Sixteenth Symphony, The Aviators, or Vissarion Shebalin's song-symphony The Heroes of Perekop, and contained nothing placatory at all in it, having been conceived before the Pravda attacks. Showing the new symphony to friends did not help. One asked, frightened, what Shostakovich thought the reaction from Pravda would be—in other words, what the reaction from Stalin would be. Shostakovich jumped up from the piano, scowling, replying sharply, "I don't write for Pravda, but for myself."[10]

Despite the increasingly repressive political atmosphere, Shostakovich continued to plan for the symphony's premiere, scheduled by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra for 11 December 1936 under the orchestra's music director, Fritz Stiedry, a Viennese musician active in the Soviet Union since 1933.[1] The composer also played the score on piano for Otto Klemperer, who responded enthusiastically and planned to conduct the symphony's first performance outside the USSR.


After a number of rehearsals that left both the conductor and musicians unenthusiastic, Shostakovich met with several officials of the Composers Union and the Communist Party, along with I.M. Renzin, the Philharmonic's director, in the latter's office. He was informed that the 11 December performance was being cancelled and that he was expected to make the announcement and provide an explanation. The composer's direct participation is unknown, but the newspaper Soviet Art (Sovetskoe iskusstvo) published a notice that Shostakovich had asked for the symphony's premiere to be cancelled "on the grounds that it in no way corresponds to his current creative convictions and represents for him a long-outdated creative phase", that it suffered from "grandiosomania" and he planned to revise it.[11]

Decades later, Isaak Glikman, who was Shostakovich's personal secretary in the 1930s and a close friend, provided a different account. He wrote that party officials exerted pressure on Renzin to cancel the scheduled performance, and Renzin, reluctant to take responsibility for the programming decision himself, instead privately persuaded Shostakovich to withdraw the symphony.[12]


The manuscript score for the Fourth Symphony was lost during World War II. Using the orchestral parts that survived from the 1936 rehearsals, Shostakovich had a four-hand piano version published in a limited edition in 1946. Shostakovich began considering a performance only after Stalin's death in 1953 changed the cultural climate in the Soviet Union. He undertook no revisions. Conductor Kirill Kondrashin led the premiere of the orchestral version on 30 December 1961 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.[13] The first performance outside the USSR took place at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

Soviet critics were excited at the prospect of finding a major missing link in Shostakovich's creative output, yet refrained from value-laden comparisons. They generally placed the Fourth Symphony firmly in its chronological context and explored its significance as a way-station on the road to the more conventional Fifth Symphony. Western critics were more overtly judgemental, especially since the Fourth was premiered back-to-back with the Twelfth Symphony in Edinburgh. The critical success of the Fourth juxtaposed with the critical disdain for the Twelfth led to speculation that Shostakovich's creative powers were on the wane.[14]

Influence of Mahler

The symphony is strongly influenced by Gustav Mahler, whose music Shostakovich had been closely studying with Ivan Sollertinsky during the preceding ten years. (Friends remembered seeing Mahler's Seventh Symphony on Shostakovich's piano at that time.) The duration, the size of the orchestra, the style and range of orchestration, and the recurrent use of "banal" melodic material juxtaposed with more high-minded, even "intellectual," material, all come from Mahler.[15]

Aside from the entire second movement, one of the most Mahlerian moments appears at the outset of the third movement—a funeral march reminiscent of many similar passages in the Austrian's output. Another such point occurs near the beginning of the deeply brooding coda that follows the last full-orchestra outburst, with the descending half-step idea in the woodwinds clearly pointing to the A Major-to-A minor chord progression that characterizes much of Mahler's Sixth Symphony.


Orchestra Conductor Record Company Year of Recording Format
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra Kirill Kondrashin Melodiya/Aulos (see ref. below)* CD
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra Kirill Kondrashin Melodiya 1962 (Recording) CD
Philharmonia Orchestra Gennady Rozhdestvensky BBC Legends 1962(1) CD
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra Kirill Kondrashin Melodiya 1966 (Recording included in the Complete Symphonies) CD
Philadelphia Orchestra Eugene Ormandy Sony Classical 1968(4) CD
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Kirill Kondrashin RCO Live 1971 CD
Chicago Symphony Orchestra André Previn EMI Classics 1977 CD
BBC Symphony Orchestra Gennady Rozhdestvensky Medici Arts/Euroarts 1978 DVD
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra Ladislav Slovák Naxos Records 1988 CD
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin RCA Victor Red Seal 1989 CD
National Symphony Orchestra Mstislav Rostropovich Teldec 1992(2) CD
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Sir Simon Rattle EMI Classics 1994 CD
Philadelphia Orchestra Myung-Whun Chung Deutsche Grammophon 1994 CD
Prague Symphony Orchestra Maxim Shostakovich Supraphon 1998(3) CD
BBC Philharmonic Vassily Sinaisky BBC Music Magazine 2000 CD
Kirov Orchestra Valery Gergiev Philips Classics 2001 CD
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Mariss Jansons EMI Classics 2004 CD
NHK Symphony Orchestra Vladimir Ashkenazy Decca Records 2006 CD
London Symphony Orchestra Mstislav Rostropovich Andante (2) CD
London Philharmonic Orchestra Bernard Haitink Decca Records 1979 CD
WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne Semyon Bychkov Avie CD
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra Andrey Boreyko Hänssler Classic 2006 CD
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra Mark Wigglesworth BIS Records 2009 CD
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Bernard Haitink CSO Resound 2008 CD
National Symphony Orchestra (Taiwan) Lu Shao-chia NSO Live 2011 CD
Los Angeles Philharmonic Esa-Pekka Salonen Deutsche Grammophon 2012 CD
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Vasily Petrenko Naxos 2013 CD
Mariinsky Orchestra Valery Gergiev Mariinsky 2014 CD

* = the first recording, made by the performers who gave the premiere
(1) = aircheck of the western premiere, 1962 Edinburgh Festival
(2) = the first and second of two recordings made by the composer's close friend and colleague
(3) = the only recording made by the composer's son
(4) = the first Western studio recording
Source: (recommended recordings selected based on critics reviews)

The last two[clarification needed] recordings include performances of the surviving original sketches of the Fourth Symphony's first movement.

  • Rustem Hayroudinoff and Colin Stone (Chandos; first recording of the 1940s two-piano reduction)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Steinberg, 541.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Steinberg, 545.
  3. Layton, 204.
  4. Shostakovich, Dmitri. Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 43. New York: Kalmus.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Freed, 3.
  6. Schwarz, Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, pp. ??
  7. Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, 110.
  8. Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, 121.
  9. Muzykal'naia akademiia, 4 (1997), 72.
  10. Muzykal'naia akademiia, 4 (1997), 74.
  11. Robinson, Harlow. "Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Opus 43" (PDF). Boston Symphony Orchestra. Retrieved 9 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Isaak Glikman, Story of a Friendship, xxii-xxiv. Glikman wrote elsewhere that "a mythology has grown up around the withdrawal of the Fourth Symphony, a mythology to which writings about Shostakovich have unfortunately lent quasi-scriptural status." Glikman, Isaak (2001) Story of a Friendship (trans. Anthony Phillips), p. xxii, Faber
  13. MacDonald, 108, 108n1
  14. Fay, 226.
  15. Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, 136.


  • Fairclough, Pauline, A Soviet Credo: Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2006) ISBN 978-0-7546-5016-4.
  • Fay, Laurel E. Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). ISBN 978-0-19-518251-4.
  • Freed, Richard, Notes for RCA/BMG 60887: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4; St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
  • Glikman, Isaak D., tr. Anthony Phillips, Story of a Friendship (London: Faber & Faber, 2001). ISBN 978-0-571-20982-8.
  • Layton, Robert, ed. Robert Simpson, The Symphony: Volume 2, Mahler to the Present Day (New York: Drake Publishing, Inc., 1972).
  • Leonard, James, All Music Guide to Classical Music (San Francisco: Backbeat books, 2005). ISBN 978-0-87930-865-0.
  • Maes, Francis, tr. Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans, A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002). ISBN 978-0-520-21815-4.
  • Schwarz, Boris, Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia: Enlarged Edition, 1917-1981 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983). ISBN 978-0-253-33956-0.
  • Spencer, William (1985). The Fourth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich: an analysis (M.M. thesis). Boston: Boston University.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Steinberg, Michael, The Symphony (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). ISBN 978-0-19-506177-2.
  • Volkov, Solomon, tr. Antonina W. Bouis, Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). ISBN 978-0-375-41082-6.
  • Wilson, Elizabeth, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Second Edition (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994, 2006). ISBN 978-0-691-12886-3.