The 20th century Russian composer Gavriil Popov (1904-1972) shared many bonds with his compatriot Dmitri Shostakovich (1906- 1975). They were contemporaries, born within two years of each other, and both studied at the Leningrad Conservatory. They composed precocious graduation pieces (Popov’s Chamber Symphony, Shostakovich’s Symphony no 1) which established their reputations. They wrote scorching symphonies reflecting the 1930s Soviet Union, which were banned (Popov’s first) or withdrawn before performance (Shostakovich’s fourth). And they admired each other’s music. So, it is little surprise that the two composers were friends. Popov has even been described as Shostakovich’s long-lost twin brother.

Popov composed his Symphony no 3, Heroic, for large string orchestra opus 45 in fits and starts over the turbulent years 1939 to 1946. It was originally a Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra for the film Spain, depicting the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War. The film director Leo Arnshtam praised the ‘remarkable music’ which ‘fuses well with the folk song material which is so plentiful in the film’. Popov developed the film score into an orchestral suite Spain, op 28 of seven symphonic fragments, which was premiered in 1940. He returned to the Concerto grosso in 1944 and finally finished the piece in 1946, changing the title from Concerto grosso to Symphony No. 3, Heroic, op 45 and dedicating the work to Shostakovich. Popov’s Symphony no 3 is an extraordinary achievement. In five movements and lasting 54 minutes, it is composed on an epic scale to match Beethoven’s revolutionary Eroica Symphony. Popov pits competing instrumental groups against each other, like duelling strings, showcasing the virtuosic qualities of bowed instruments. The composer divides the parts of similar string instruments into multiple voices and in so doing, weaves a rich orchestral fabric. Popov’s inventiveness, boldly pushing the boundaries of symphonic form, coupled with his compositional skill in his use of strings creates an immense effect; that of the full-scale symphonic orchestra. And this is all without trumpets, trombones, or drums! The composer explains that his choice of strings was prompted by folk song, melody, and thematic material. “Adding brass and percussion instruments to the texture of this score would completely destroy the organic perception of the style.” According to Popov, the idea of a symphony for strings was inspired by the Austrian American composer Arnold Schoenberg; “I admired his Verklärte Nacht [Transfigured Night], a symphonic poem for string orchestra … I heard his expressive melodies and realised his great ability to create emotionally hot musical forms. I felt elements of symphonism in Schoenberg’s opus.”

Popov’s Symphony no 3 premiered in 1947 to great acclaim, however the composer would soon experience further repression. In the post-war years, Zhdanovshchina, the Soviet cultural policy instigated by propagandist-in-chief Andrei Zhdanov, saw cultural purges, an extreme anti-Western bias, and tighter control of the arts. The following year, Popov and Shostakovich, among other leading composers including Prokofiev and Khachaturian, were censured by the Soviet authorities in the notorious Zhadanov Decree of 1948 for writing socalled ‘formalist’ music (art for art’s sake which did not serve the regime). The first recording of Popov’s Symphony no 3 was only made in 2008. Popov had the raw compositional talent of Shostakovich but sadly lacked his friend’s genius in mastering the secret of artistic survival in a cruel age. For long periods after 1948, Popov wrote little of consequence while Shostakovich was composing his cycle of symphonies and string quartets. Even more shameful then, that the crushing climate of the Soviet era caused Popov’s scintillating symphony for strings to languish in oblivion until recently.

by Paolo Hooke

Join Paolo for The World of a Symphony on Thursday 11 April at 8pm or listen on demand.