The Soviet Symphonist

The Shostakovich story — man and music in the apocalypse of world war and Cold War — seems to get more frightfully irresistible with every remembrance, every new CD in the Boston Symphony’s Grammy winning series. With Stravinsky and Prokofiev in the trio of Russia’s 20th century immortals, Shostakovich was the one who stayed on the home ground of his music, and paid the price. This is a story of where music comes from, what it means, and who owns it. In the Soviet Union, it is a personal duel between composer and tyrant; of Stalin himself bullying Shostakovich on the telephone, and of the shy, twitchy-nervous but indomitable composer writing unmistakably in musical notation when Stalin was gone: “you’re dead, and I am alive.” 

The fourth of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies marks a low point in a tortured life. Just as clearly it marks a rallying point of courage, start of a recovery in artistic fortunes, still rising this summer of 2018 — four decades into a composer’s immortality. It is this fourth symphony from 1936 that Joseph Stalin ordered not to be performed. Pravda delivered the death threat, mocking Shostakovich’s sound as grunts and hoots — “muddle not music,” said the editorial headline.

So Shostakovich 4 was never played in Russia till 1960, after Stalin had died, after Shostakovich had been browbeaten into joining the Communist Party. It’s on the BSO’s Tanglewood program next Friday night, August 17. And like every turn in the long Shostakovich surge, Andris Nelsons’ take on the Fourth Symphony has the air of an event around it, of revelation. We’ve been listening in on rehearsals, and engaging the Maestro on Shostakovich since March.

We’re joined by the Shostakovich biographer Elizabeth Wilson, the writer Tobin Anderson, and the BSO violinist Valeria Kuchment.

Guest List
Andris Nelsons
conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhauskapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
M.T. Anderson
author of Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad
Elizabeth Wilson
author of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered
Valeria Kuchment
violinist at the Boston Symphony Orchestra who played for Shostakovich

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