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10. Shostakovich: 4th Symphony

[…] I joined her with the scotch.
she put on Shostakovitch’s 4th which she knew I preferred to the 5th.
“James Thurber,” she said, “is a greater writer than you’ll ever be.”
“I know that,” I said.
I don’t know when we went to bed
but with Rod Stewart on the record player
I made sure that time
I gave her a stinky horse fuck.

Excerpt from Culture by Charles Bukowski 

Shostakovich and Stalin had a lot in common. They both loved Mother Russia and music. Their main difference was that Shostakovich hated Stalin’s guts, while Stalin considered Shostakovich a decadent douchebag.

The fact that they had to make things work between them was a rather complicating matter. Shostakovich couldn’t perform his works without Stalin’s consent. Stalin in turn couldn’t send the popular Shostakovich to a Siberian Gulag, without causing a riot amongst the people. This didn’t stop them from pissing each other off, whenever an opportunity would arise.

By the time Shostakovich wrote this 4th Symphony, he was highly influenced by Western composers like Mahler. This same influence was noticeable in his opera Lady Macbeth, which premiered prior to the completion of this 4th. Stalin wasn’t amused. He needed Shostakovich to write understandable patriotic music for the people, instead of this Western-style elitist stuff. Stalin made sure the influential newspaper Pravda dismissed the opera as “coarse, primitive and vulgar”, and at the premiere Stalin laughed out loud during the most tearjerking scenes.

Shostakovich’ popularity was rapidly diminishing with all this bad press. So he decided to dash off a more conventional 5th Symphony, while saving this nearly finished 4th Symphony in his bottom drawer until the heat would die. Stalin died sooner than the heat. In 1961 the popular Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin had the courage to premiere Shostakovich’ 4th in Moscow, but it would never become as popular as his 5th or 7th. Still, Bukowski clearly prefers the 4th, so it’s up here.

Recommended recording:
Kirill Kondrashin & Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra



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