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Symphony No. 3, The First of May

“It would be interesting to write a symphony where not a single theme would be repeated.”

Composition and premiere: Shostakovich wrote the Symphony No. 3 between April and October 1929. Alexander Gauk conducted the premiere on January 21, 1930, with the Leningrad Philharmonic and the chorus of the Academic Capella in the Moscow-Narva House of Culture in Leningrad. The text in the final part is by Semyon Kirsanov. This is the first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of the piece, and its first hearing at Tanglewood.

“It would be interesting to write a symphony where not a single theme would be repeated.”

This is how Dmitri Shostakovich described the unusual plan for his kaleidoscopic, radical, and frankly ideological Third Symphony. Like the Second Symphony (October), dedicated to the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917, the Third celebrated a major holiday of the new “Red Calendar.” This time it was May Day, the First of May, a celebration of the Day of International Solidarity of Workers established in 1889 by the Marxist International Socialist Congress.

Until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, May Day was observed each year with a pompous military parade and festivities on Moscow’s Red Square. Similar celebrations took place around the vast country. In large cities, the occasion sparked “spontaneous” street demonstrations that Shostakovich often saw as a student at Leningrad Conservatory throughout the 1920s.

Shostakovich sought to convey that raucous atmosphere in his Third Symphony, completed when he was only 23 years old. Its premiere came on the sixth anniversary of the death of Vladimir Ilych Lenin—January 21—and in Leningrad, birthplace of the Bolshevik Revolution. Shostakovich’s use of propagandistic verses by the politically orthodox poet Semyon Kirsanov (1906-1972) for the concluding choral section implies a statement of solidarity with the Communist Party.

But just how sincere was Shostakovich’s cheerleading remains an open question. The Symphony’s frequently grotesque, humorous, parodic, mocking, and sarcastic musical content surely makes one wonder. By most accounts, however, Shostakovich mostly embraced Soviet ideology at this point in his young life and believed in the socialist future. In 1929, Josef Stalin had only recently assumed the position of Soviet supreme ruler. The relative cultural and political freedom and pluralism of the 1920s had not yet been fully replaced by the Stalinist repression that would eventually upend Shostakovich’s career and destroy his peace of mind.

When he began the Third Symphony, Shostakovich was already an acclaimed and experienced composer. In 1926, he had scored a stunning international success with his neo-classical First Symphony. But since then he had been focusing on theatrical and film projects, and even worked as a pianist accompanying silent films at a Leningrad movie theater. Cinema clearly influenced the Third Symphony’s fragmentary and episodic structure, which passes quickly from one musical “frame” to the next, similar to the rapid “montage” editing technique of Soviet filmmakers of the time. Others have compared the Symphony to a parade—an ever-changing procession of interrupted tunes, fanfares, drum rolls, songs, dances, and speeches.

Like the Second Symphony, the Third unfolds in a single movement. Unlike the restlessly polyphonic and atonal Second, however, the Third is resolutely tonal, more or less in the key of E-flat major. A solo clarinet opens the drama, then pairs with another in a sweet lyrical duet establishing a pastoral mood, linking images of springtime and stirrings of revolution. A solo trumpet, the symphony’s principal actor, announces a fanfare and the full orchestra jumps in for an extended march-like episode. Piccolos and flutes squeal, undermining the heroic message. The strings enter with what sounds like a unifying theme that is soon submerged in a multi-voice fugato. Following a huge sonic climax reinforced by percussion, the snare drum takes center stage, joined by horns and trumpet in an oddly jocular and comic military march. For the slower Andante, the mood turns ominous and brooding, then briefly tranquil. But the insistent march returns, led by the mocking woodwinds, then taken up again by the brass and the full orchestra.

The snare drum announces a new scene: the proceedings of a grand political May Day meeting. Octaves resound, representing solidarity and unity. In a slower passage, the tuba, trombones, and trumpet enter like orators. The assembly responds approvingly with ascending string glissandos, followed by a bold statement of unanimity from the brass. In the finale, the chorus sings a “mass song” typical of the period, featuring plentiful octaves and simple intervals, ending in jubilant fanfare-filled, poster-like affirmation. By concluding with this ecstatic hymn to a coming utopia, Shostakovich may well have been imitating the “Ode to Joy” finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a work very popular in the USSR at the time for its revolutionary sentiments.

After what had seemed to be a successful premiere, the Symphony vanished from the Soviet repertoire after two performances. A few years later, it was banned by censors (along with the Second Symphony and the opera The Nose) for its “formalism and dry experimentalism.” It returned to the Soviet repertoire only in the 1960s. Abroad, the Third Symphony fared somewhat better. Leopold Stokowski performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Philadelphia in 1932, and at Carnegie Hall in early 1933.

Among those in the audience at Carnegie Hall was composer Sergei Prokofiev, on tour in America. He shared his impressions in a letter. “As always, there were interesting ideas, but the whole piece didn’t hold together well; it was awkward, not flowing; there was a lot of counterpoint, and counterpoint is justified only when there is a tendency towards melody, and this is precisely where Shostakovich is weak. The New Yorkers listened attentively, but most musicians share my impression.” Just a few years later, Prokofiev would make a permanent move back to Russia, where he would find that Shostakovich was rapidly replacing him as the most important Soviet composer.

Looking back, Shostakovich himself admitted there were “a number of shortcomings” in the Third Symphony, but that it was an honest “attempt to reflect life” and a “useful” step in his creative development. The energy, enthusiasm and naivete of this exuberant experiment paid tribute to the idealistic and hopeful spirit of the confused and adventurous post-Revolutionary era. Sadly, these hopes would soon be replaced by disappointment and despair.

Harlow Robinson