09 October 2010

In defense of “juvenile” Shostakovich

In a message exchange with a friend, I was taken aback when he was (a little inconsideredly) dismissive of the first three symphonies of Shostakovich. I replied:

Now, to be fair: no. 1 is a student work. Well, but no, it’s an astonishingly assured symphony for a student work. “Bad” isn't at all a suitable adjective! It’s a concert-worthy work, which is the proper gauge for the obligatory “it is a work for which the composer need feel no shame.”

The badness in nos. 2 & 3 is not musical badness. One could argue that the music for no. 3 is a bit “rushed,” but I think that this argues for considering its virtues in light of an impromptu. It is certainly not the rich monument we have in no. 4. But (on the same lines as the Prokofiev Cantata, Opus 74) the fact that the texts with which the composer had to work were shoddy texts, underscores the detached professionalism wherewith the composer rose above that, musically. Perhaps the music of nos. 2 & 3 is a little bagatelle-ish, a bit experimental in the manner of the Zeitgeist . . . and I do think that Shostakovich did not concern himself with making them Heavy Symphonic Business, because he had faith in his future. All that, I think, reflects positively rather than otherwise. Sure, neither no. 2 nor no. 3 is the magnificent no. 4, but (as you know) I don’t disregard the Beethoven Eighth because it is not the Seventh, either. Here, I think that the composer’s comfort with letting symphonies inhabit a range of manner, is an aspect which Shostakovich broadens.

It was many years before I made any point to listen to the Second and Third. And at the time that I did, I found that I was less concerned with how unsuited they might be to The Cycle, and more taken with the musical glimpse of the composer in those (soon gone forever) comparatively uninhibited times before “Muddle Instead of Music.”

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