The year 1948 was one of tribulation for Shostakovich and Prokofiev, censured by the cultural commissars and forced to recant for writing ‘decadent’ and ‘formalistic’ music. Their crime? Writing music which did not serve the Soviet regime. In the post war years, Stalin’s propagandist-in-chief Andrei Zhdanov instigated Zhdanovshchina, a policy which saw cultural purges and stringent control of the arts. At a conference of musicians in January 1948 in Moscow, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were publicly denounced as ‘formalist’ and ‘anti-people’ composers. This was followed by the notorious Zhadanov Decree in February, which makes for chilling reading: Shebalin, G. Popov, N. Myaskovski and others, in whose work formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies in music, alien to the Soviet people and to its artistic tastes are particularly clearly represented.” For Shostakovich, these denunciations consigned his Violin Concerto no 1 in A minor opus 77 to the desk drawer. The composer completed the concerto in 1948, Shostakovich wrote the third movement Passacaglia amidst the condemnation of 1948. The composer recounted to his close friend Isaak Glikman in Story of a Friendship: the sessions] were over for the day, I would come home and work on the third movement of the violin concerto. I finished it and I think it turned out well.”

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no 1 is, unusually for a concerto, a work in four movements. It has an expressive range that is symphonic in scale; the brooding opening movement depicts a time of darkness. In the second movement Shostakovich introduces his musical signature: the DSCH monogram, translated to D, E flat, C and B natural in the German note spellings, an assertion of his own creative survival. The Passacaglia is one of the composer’s most inspired slow movements, in which grief and grandeur coexist in an atmosphere of hushed intensity. The music builds to a soaring solo cadenza of profound expressiveness and almost unbearable tension, which leads directly into the helter skelter final movement burlesque, a thrilling ending to a great concerto.

For Prokofiev, the year 1948 silenced his Symphony no 6 in E flat minor opus 111, which he composed the previous year. The work had enjoyed a successful Leningrad premiere in October 1947, but two months later in Moscow, in the face of increasing Zhdanovshchina, it received a different reception. Now dismissed as ‘formalist’ and a failure, the symphony was withdrawn from further performance. Although less popular than his Fifth Symphony, the Sixth is arguably Prokofiev’s finest symphony. It has pathos, profundity, and humanity. Prokofiev’s Symphony no 6 is unsettling, even nerve-wracking, with warmly lyrical and beautiful themes juxtaposed against violent sonorities and brutal passages, culminating in a shattering conclusion.

Although Zhadanov died in 1948, Zhdanovshchina continued until Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953. Prokofiev had suffered a stroke in 1949 and by cruel irony, died the same day as the tyrant. For three days, as vast crowds gathered to mourn Stalin at Red Square, it was practically impossible to carry Prokofiev’s body out of his Moscow home for burial. The composer’s funeral was modest, with no floral tributes, as all flowers had been requisitioned for Stalin. The composer’s passing was barely noticed, Stalin’s shadow looming over Prokofiev even in death.

World of a SymphonyThursday 9 May 2024 at 8pm

Prepared and presented by Paolo Hooke

Prokofiev Piano Sonata no 7 in B flat major opus 83

Shostakovich Violin Concerto no 1 in A minor opus 77