By Paolo Hooke

Imagine living in an age where in a stroke, your life could be erased from the pages of history while being forced to rejoice through clenched teeth and a bitter heart. A world whose very social fabric was being ripped apart at the seams and replaced with fear, betrayal, lies, and above all, terror. Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) and Gavriil Popov (1904-72) lived in such an age: the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Popov completed his Symphony no 1 in 1934. It is a striking work, composed in the idiom of expressionistic catastrophism, with a mood of doom and near-hysteria. Tragic, dissonant, and apocalyptic, it cinematically depicts the world the composer inhabited. Popov’s symphony shares many similarities with Shostakovich’s Symphony no 4 and in many ways was the work’s predecessor. Remarkably, Popov’s intense opening Allegro energico is sustained for over 20 minutes. Piling crescendo upon crescendo, with relentless rhythmic energy and extreme orchestration, the effect is overwhelming.

Shostakovich seems to have used Popov’s Symphony no 1 as a creative stimulus for his own Symphony no 4 which he completed in 1936. The spirit of Mahler haunts Popov’s symphony, and Shostakovich is known to have admired Mahler, to whose music he was introduced by his close friend, the Russian musicologist and critic Ivan Sollertinsky.

Mahler famously said, “the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything,” and Shostakovich’s Symphony no 4 is undoubtedly massive. “Even though it calls for an orchestra of 125 musicians, its real excess lies in its form, or rather its apparent lack of form,” says the eminent British conductor and Shostakovich specialist Mark Wigglesworth, in his notes on the symphony. “But to criticise the piece for this is to ignore the fact that the seemingly rambling and at times incoherent structure is the point of the work. The music is grandiose and bombastic because it is about grandiosity and bombast. It is meant to overstate.” Shostakovich is portraying the world in which he lived to devastating effect; ‘gigantomania’ was a term used to describe the public mood of
the 1930s Soviet Union in which everything big was celebrated.

Shostakovich withdrew his Symphony no 4 from performance during rehearsals in 1936. Earlier that year, articles in the official Party newspaper Pravda entitled ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ and ‘Balletic Falsehood’ had condemned Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and his
ballet Limpid Stream. The composer’s existence was changed forever. As he recounts in his memoir
Testimony: “Two editorial attacks in Pravda in ten days – that was too much for one man. Now everyone knew for sure that I would be destroyed. And the anticipation of that noteworthy event has never left me.”

Shostakovich’s Symphony no 4 was only premiered by conductor Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra 25 years later, in 1961. Sadly, Popov’s Symphony no 1 suffered a similar fate – orchestras and publishers considered the piece to be too hot to handle and were afraid to go near the work. The writer and musicologist Per Skans, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of music in the former Soviet Union, writing in the CD sleeve notes accompanying the first recording of Popov’s Symphony no 1, describes it as a sensational work: “It emerges with honour even if we compare it with Shostakovich’s work from the same period, and it is scandalous that the political narrow-mindedness of the period has caused it to remain in oblivion until now.”

The terrifying world of the 1930s Soviet Union which Shostakovich and Popov portrayed is revealed in a quote from Liubov Vasilievna Shaporiny’s diary for 21 November 1937 about the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony no 5: “The audience was beside itself and gave a frenzied ovation – a deliberate protest against the persecution to which poor Mitya (Shostakovich) has been subjected.
Everyone repeated one and the same phrase: ‘He answered, and he answered well.’ D.D. (Shostakovich) came out pale, biting his lip. I think he could have broken into tears. I met Popov: ‘You know, I’ve become a coward. I’m afraid of everything. I even burned your letter.’”

Wigglesworth writes in his notes that Shostakovich must have had mixed feelings about the ultimate, if belated, success of his Symphony no 4: “questions of what might have been, the memory of those difficult times, perhaps even artistic guilt about abandoning the modernist musical path he had been following. Though there is a dynamism and impetuosity in this piece that never appears again in his work, the challenge of having to write more popular music whilst at the same time remaining true to himself may have been a valuable discipline, without which he would not have touched so many. Maybe being ‘reined in’ was the best thing that could have happened to him. Alternatively, one could regard the change of style that followed the events of 1936 as a tragedy and lament the loss of a fantastically brilliant and original mind, and only try to imagine what direction he might have taken his music had he been allowed to remain artistically free.

Ode to the Fourth Symphony
A darkened mass of clouds passes silently through the sombre Soviet sky, as the echoes of an
approaching train reverberate throughout the midnight air, its muted horn sounding a distant note of warning. Suddenly the beast has arrived, its
glaring light blinding the eyes, and its shrill screeching shattering the silence into a shower of splinters. Like a giant machine that might run off the rails at any moment, it lurches from side to side, belching a sinister smoke and spilling blood alongside tracks of sharpened steel which slice through the harvest of sorrow and fields of famine.

It has no conductor yet hidden behind the cold metal lies a weeping mass of starving humanity destined for the frozen tundra and windswept plains of the Gulag Archipelago, the tormented cries of a lost generation seeping through the bolted bars of its carriages.

Pistons are propelled faster, cogs driven to breaking point as more coal is thrown onto the raging fire to satisfy the beast’s insatiable craving. It speeds furiously along like a demonic tornado, relentlessly destroying everything in its path.

As the savage blows of a kettle drum sends fluttering butterflies into a hysterical panic, a raging river of molten lava sets the slopes ablaze in a line of fire, the landscape charred, and the trees stripped bare of leaves. As the grim echoes of the train fade into the distance, a tragic horizon saturates the sky in a terrible darkness, there is no exit from a catastrophic age.

The World of a Symphony prepared and
presented by Paolo Hooke, Thursday 11
January 2024, 8pm
Popov Symphony no 1, op 7(first movement)
Shostakovich The Age of Gold op 22 ballet (Act 3)
Shostakovich Symphony no 4 in C minor, op 43