[A] quasi-Boléro march interruption breaks in upon the sonata design, and then, it is (deliberately, there can be no question that this is every measure what Shostakovich wanted to do here) a
little wooden-headed. The tune itself is simple, folksy, even a little carefree; in this way, it is entirely unlike the sensuous, yearning, arching tune of the Ravel “model.” Like the Boléro, though, the variations are not variations in the shape or make-up of the melody, but a process of evolving orchestration. There is a sense, really, in which Shostakovich ‘improves’ upon Ravel’s example, or accomplishes something very different, at least. The accumulating texture in the Ravel is essentially just a written-out crescendo (a modesty and simplicity of aim which is probably at the heart of Ravel’s tongue-in-cheek, “I have written only one masterpiece, the Boléro; unfortunately, it contains no music”); where in the Shostakovich, the shifting orchestration alters the character of the melody.
The propaganda of wartime publicized this repeated march as the Nazi invasion of Russia, and siege of Leningrad (the famous “900 days”); while according to Shostakovich as Solomon Volkov reports in (the admittedly controversial) Testimony, the symphony is not about the city that Hitler sought to destroy, but about the city which Stalin had crippled, and which Hitler “merely finished off.” The simplistic “programmatic” view of the first movement, then, has been to see Stalin’s boots imprinted in this interruptive march. I think both that this is a little easy, and yet that there is something in it. The tune begins in perfectly beguiling innocence (indeed, it is so unassuming a melody, that Bartók savagely parodies it in his Concerto for Orchestra) ... in which it is hard to find any illustration of Stalin at all. And even when towards the end of the tune’s transformation, it is blared out in the brasses, the tune does not strike me, strictly speaking, as an evil thing, but as a simple thing turned to evil use.