Symphony No. 6 (Shostakovich)

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The Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54 by Dmitri Shostakovich was written in 1939, and first performed in Leningrad on 21 November 1939 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky.


Symphony No. 6 is in three movements and is approximately 30 minutes in length:

  1. Largo
  2. Allegro
  3. Presto

The Sixth Symphony is unusual in structure, beginning with a long and introspective slow movement, followed by two short movements: a scherzo and a "full-blooded and debauched music-hall galop".[1]

According to music critic Herbert Glass, the "entire [first] movement is based on the cell of a minor third, with a second theme - which follows without transition - the motif of a diminished seventh, with the trill at its close forming the third major ingredient of the movement - the two themes and the trill combined as a sort of super-theme. The composer lays this out as clearly as if he were teaching a music-appreciation class: do listen for it. Chamber music effects abound with, for instance, piccolo or flute, eerily alone or accompanied by the B-flat clarinets. There are walloping climaxes, too, each of which dies away into the gloom. Note, too, the composer's wonderful spotlighting of the melancholy English horn, a lone figure after the din has evaporated."[2]

The third movement galop is the movement Shostakovich himself thought was most successful. Music critic Daniel Hathaway noted that in the third movement, [the] "Snare drums ratcheted up the riot of brutal sound in the Scherzo and references to the William Tell Overture and laughing trombones added a hilarious burlesque quality to the finale."[3] On average, the first movement is 15–20 minutes long, the second movement is 4–6 minutes long, and the third movement is 5–7 minutes long.


This symphony is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 oboes (3rd doubling cor anglais), 4 clarinets (3rd doubling Eb clarinet, 4th doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, xylophone, harp, celesta and strings.


The Sixth Symphony was originally said to be a large-scale "Lenin Symphony" - a project which was often announced, but never materialised. Shostakovich had announced once in September 1938 that he was anxious to work on his Sixth Symphony, which would be a monumental composition for soloists, chorus and orchestra employing the poem Vladimir Ilyich Lenin by Vladimir Mayakovsky, but the declamatory nature of the poem made it difficult to set. He later tried to incorporate other literature about Lenin in his new symphony, but without success. In January 1939, he spoke about the Sixth Symphony in a radio address, with no mention of Lenin or any extramusical associations.[4]

The purely instrumental Symphony No. 6 was completed in September 1939. Shostakovich commented on it in the press:

The musical character of the Sixth Symphony will differ from the mood and emotional tone of the Fifth Symphony, in which moments of tragedy and tension were characteristic. In my latest symphony, music of a contemplative and lyrical order predominates. I wanted to convey in it the moods of spring, joy, youth.[5]

On 21 November 1939, exactly two years after the premiere of the Symphony No. 5, the premiere of the Symphony No. 6 took place in the Large Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky—the same location and performers. In the same programme was the Romantic Poem for violin and orchestra of Zhelobinsky.[6] The symphony had a successful premiere, and the finale was encored. However, although a local critic lauded Shostakovich for further freeing himself from formalistic tendencies in his new symphony, the work was later criticised for its ungainly structure and the jarring juxtaposition of moods. The fact that the symphony was performed during a 10-day festival of Soviet music which included patriotic works by Prokofiev (excerpts from Alexander Nevsky) and Shaporin (On the Field of Kulikovo) probably did not help.[7]

The first recording was made by Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra for RCA Victor in December 1940.

Notable recordings

Notable recordings of this symphony include:

Orchestra Conductor Record company Year of recording Format
New York Philharmonic Fritz Reiner Guild 1943* CD
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra Yevgeny Mravinsky Melodiya 1946 LP
London Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Adrian Boult Everest Records 1958 CD
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra Kirill Kondrashin Melodiya 1967 CD
BBC Symphony Orchestra Gennadi Rozhdestvensky BBC Legends 1980 CD
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Bernard Haitink Decca Classics 1983 CD
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Vladimir Ashkenazy Decca Records 1988 CD
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra Mariss Jansons EMI Classics 1992 CD
National Symphony Orchestra Mstislav Rostropovich Teldec 1994 CD
Berlin Symphony Orchestra Kurt Sanderling Berlin Classics 1994 CD
Dallas Symphony Orchestra Andrew Litton Delos 2000 CD
BBC National Orchestra of Wales Mark Wigglesworth BIS Records 2001 CD
Kirov Orchestra Valery Gergiev Philips Classics 2002 CD
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra Yuri Temirkanov Warner Classics 2005(1) CD
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi Oleg Caetani Arts Music 2006 CD
Gürzenich Orchestra Dmitri Kitayenko Capriccio 2008 SACD

* = Mono recording
(1) = recorded live in Birmingham
Source: (recommended recordings selected based on critics' reviews)


  1. Hathaway, Daniel (29 October 2013). "Review: Cleveland Orchestra "Fate and Freedom" Festival — Beethoven 3 and Shostakovich 6 (October 24)". Retrieved 1 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Glass, Herbert (7 March 2015). "About the Piece: Symphony no. 6, Dmitri Shostakovich". Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Retrieved 1 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Hathaway, Daniel (29 October 2013). "Review: Cleveland Orchestra "Fate and Freedom" Festival — Beethoven 3 and Shostakovich 6 (October 24)". Retrieved 1 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Fay, 115.
  5. Quoted in Fay, 115.
  6. Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Zhelobinsky, Valery Viktorovich
  7. Fay, 115-16.


External links