Shostakovich-9: a Wozzeck-quotation.      articles        home                                                            2004, Daan Admiraal     

Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony is the last in his triptych of wartime Symphonies. After his heroic Seventh (Leningrad), op.60 (1941) and the grandiose Eighth Symphony, op.65 (1943) people in the USSR and abroad expected in 1945 a big Ninth Symphony to celebrate the victory. Shostakovich tried to compose such a piece but abandonned it after two attempts. What finally became the Ninth Symphony, op.70, was quickly written in the summer of 1945 in less than one month.
Although we must be very suspicious about Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as long as editor Solomon Volkov admits nobody to investigate his documentation I quote Stalin's reaction from Volkov's Testimony:
they wanted a fanfare from me, an ode, they wanted me to write a majestic Ninth Symphony. ...And they demanded that Shostakovich use quadruple winds, choir and soloists to hail the leader. All the more because Stalin found the number auspicious: the Ninth Symphony. ... I announced that I was writing an apotheosis. ... When my Ninth was performed, Stalin was incensed. He was deeply offended because there was no chorus, no soloists. And no apotheosis. (p.106, 107)
After such great expectations also caused by Shostakovich's own words (as confirmed by Meyer) the premiere perplexed the Russian audience: they heared a short symphony in a non-heroic, dry neo-classical style. We can describe the fast movements 1-3-5 as (1) carefree and witty - (3) gay and highly energetic - (5) burlesque and the slow movements 2 - 4 as(2) simple and elegiac - (4) deeply serious.
The sudden change of mood that happens at the end of the third movement is enigmatic in the context of gaiety. In the form it is a transition that prepares the fourth movement with the great bassoon-solo. But one special phrase in this transition has a great emotional importance. It feels related to the music before as the end of a masquerade, as if we get a sudden and shocking insight in the tragic soul of the symphonic clown that we heared hitherto. When Mravinky prepared the first performance with the Leningrad Philharmonic Shostakovich walked nervous in the Philharmonic Hall continuously saying circus, circus.
The special phrase with the great emotional impact proves to be a quotation of one of the most important motives from Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, the Wir arme Leut!

When this melody was written as an intentional Wozzeck-quote the reason of the citation must be found in the meaning the words Wir arme Leut. The quote gives us a the possibility to construct a possible dramatic concept of the Symphony as a whole.
When after the 'Great Patriottic War' human life will be continued as if nothing serious has happened Shostakovich doesn't want to forget. In the gay and noisy symphonic circus all of a sudden he erects a deeply felt monument for the millions of victims of war: the bassoon-solo gives them a voice. The emotional context of the bassoon-solo is Wozzeck, the poor soldier  whose tragic fate was depicted in Alban Berg's opera that became such a monument of social compassion.
                                                                                                                                 2004, Daan Admiraal