Lectures/Scripts/WritingsTelevision ScriptsYoung People's ConcertsA Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich

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Young People's Concert

A Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich

Written by Leonard Bernstein
Original CBS Television Network Broadcast Date: 5 January 1966

That beautiful melody is from the Leningrad Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich, and that is a typical Shostakovich sound—broad, noble, proud, songful, rich with feeling.

During the coming year, 1966, this extraordinary Russian composer is going to be sixty years old, and we are therefore dedicating this program to him and to his lifelong devotion to his art. May it long continue.

Since this is a birthday party, I'd like to take a minute or two before we play you his music to make a sort of after-dinner speech in his honor. I particularly want to do this because, in these days of musical experimentation, with new fads chasing each other in and out of the concert halls, a composer like Shostakovich can be easily put down. After all, he is basically a traditional Russian composer, a true son of Tchaikovsky, and no matter how "modern" he ever gets, he never loses that tradition. So the music is always, in some way, old-fashioned— or at least, what critics and musical intellectuals like to call old-fashioned. But they're forgetting one most important thing: He's a genius—a real, authentic genius. And there aren't too many of those around anymore. That's why I want to make this personal birthday toast to him.

When the New York Philharmonic and I visited Russia, back in 1959, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Shostakovich. And I had an impression of a very reserved man, speaking very little, a bit nervous, and very shy. I suspect that that is the true nature of the man, but you'd never know it from hearing his music. As a composer he has a great deal to say, serious or light, whatever it happens to be, and he says it with enormous confidence, ease, and boldness. I suppose that's one of the most fascinating things about artists—how different they can be, as people, from the art they create. The most sure-handed painter may be very insecure in his daily life; the greatest writer may have trouble spelling the simplest words; the most intelligent physicist may be incapable of adding up an ordinary grocery bill.

Shostakovich is a bit like that. Out of this shy man, hidden behind his eyeglasses, has come some of the most powerful, brash, un-shy music ever written. His famous Seventh Symphony, known as the Leningrad Symphony—which was written in Leningrad in 1941 while the city was more often than not in flames from the Nazi bombings—that Seventh Symphony lasts seventy-five minutes, requires an extra brass band, and makes the walls fall down. Nothing shy about that. His latest symphony, number thirteen, lasts an hour, and includes a chorus which sings Yevtushenko's famous poem against anti-Semitism. So you see, Shostakovich has a lot to say, musically, and very often what he says is noble, original, and deeply moving.

But this is a birthday party, and birthday parties should be gay and amusing, not necessarily noble and moving. Besides, you should know that Shostakovich is also world-famous for his marvelous sense of humor. He has written some of the most downright funny music there is to be heard, and therefore I think it's especially proper for us to celebrate just his birthday in an atmosphere of fun. So in just a moment, instead of a long serious work, we're going to play you one of his gayest and most amusing works—his Ninth Symphony. Although this symphony has five movements, it's a very short work, so we can play you all of it, and I think you're going to enjoy it a lot.

This Ninth Symphony by Shostakovich is rather like a witty comedy in the theatre, where you are treated to one joke after another—puns, wisecracks, punchlines, surprises, twisteroos—but somehow all adding up to a work of art. Now almost every symphony has some kind of joke in it: Even the most serious symphony by Beethoven or Mahler has at least one movement (usually the scherzo) which is humorous—maybe not out-and-out comical, but satirical, or bitter, or mocking, or something. But this whole symphony by Shostakovich is all humorous, every minute and every movement. It is all one big series of jokes.

The first and foremost joke is the very fact that it is his Ninth Symphony. You may well ask what's so funny about that; well, I'll tell you. That number nine is a magic number with composers; ever since Beethoven it has come to mean the crowning final output of a symphonic composer. Beethoven's ninth, as you must know, is the huge symphonic monument of his whole lifetime—his last symphony. And since then, it's become almost a tradition for a composer to crown his life with his ninth symphony—if he can make it, of course. Mahler and Bruckner did make it. They both wrote gigantic ninth symphonies of farewell. Brahms and Schumann never got beyond number four. Mendelssohn did reach five, and Tchaikovsky reached six. But if you can reach number nine, it had better be a whopper, worthy of that magic number.

But not Shostakovich. You see, he had just written two whoppers, number seven and number eight—both very long, very serious, very patriotic symphonies, and both having grown out of his wartime emotions. But now it was 1945, the war was over, and it was time for some comic relief from those two gigantic symphonies seven and eight. So out came number nine—a little number nine, and that in itself is a twisteroo.

But the real jokes begin with the music itself. Listen to the opening theme, for instance:

That doesn't sound like modern music, does it? It's more like Haydn, from two centuries ago. In fact, the whole first movement is written like an old-time classical symphony, as if by Haydn, with all the rules strictly observed. That also doesn't sound very funny at first, does it, but it turns out to be, as soon as you realize that it's not by Haydn but by a modern composer named Shostakovich and that this eighteenth-century classical form is really just a spoof—a take-off of the old eighteenth-century form. And the more strictly it imitates Haydn, the funnier it is, as you begin to recognize your old pals Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation—remember those three hard words—three parts of the sonata form that we discussed in a program last year? And he goes even further by dutifully repeating the exposition, just as he's supposed to, by putting the second theme in the dominant key, just as the old rules dictated, and having the recapitulation of it in the tonic key—all those formulas from the distant past, dug up again and made fun of.

What makes it even funnier is that his gay little Haydnish tunes are treated to a modern facelifting, so that they're constantly surprising you into doubletakes with their twentieth-century sound. For instance, that merry opening theme in E-flat major bounces along just like Haydn—until it suddenly stumbles on a loud wrong note:

Now that wrong note

wouldn't sound so wrong if it didn't have such a strong accent on it, to say nothing of a trill

which makes the accent even stronger. In other words, Shostakovich is calling your special attention to this wrong note, like a clown who slips on a banana peel and laughs at himself before you do.

But it's not only those mischievous wrong-note tunes of Shostakovich that make his humor, it's also his way of adding or skipping a beat here and there, where you least expect it, as in this little theme, which follows the one we just heard:

Did you hear that extra beat? It's especially easy to hear in this tune, which goes in what is called a sequence—that is, the same phrase repeated at a higher pitch. So once you hear the first phrase,

you expect the second one to be identical, only higher:

But that's not what you get—almost, but not quite. What you do get is a second phrase that repeats the first at a higher pitch all right, but with one extra beat added—just enough to knock you off balance, like that tipsy clown:

Do you hear it now? I thought you would. Of course it's not the sort of joke that will make you shriek with laughter—I mean no musical joke is—but it's just enough of a twist to make you smile inside, and that's what a good musical joke should do.

This movement is full of twists like that: melodic surprises, rhythmic surprises, and especially harmonic surprises—that is, moments when you expect the harmony to go one way, and it goes somewhere else, completely unexpectedly. Like this spot a little later on in the movement, where the opening theme is repeated in the original key of E-flat major and must now switch to another key, in which the second theme is going to appear—namely the dominant, or B-flat major. But Shostakovich switches his key to the furthest harmonic point away from B-flat major, so that when B-flat does finally appear it's a shocker, right out of the blue. Look how he does it: Here is the first theme, with its harmonic switch:

That's a mile away from where we're headed (B-flat), but without so much as a blink of the eye, Shostakovich wrenches us into the required new key of B-flat:

You see? There was no preparation at all for this new key, or rather a misleading preparation, as if for some totally foreign key, and then—bang! B-flat major. Listen to the whole section now, and see how the harmony jerks you from key to key:

You see? It's like a ride on some mad Coney Island machine where you're whipped and flung in fifty directions, always when you least expect it. But anyway, shaken up as we are, we have reached the dominant key of B-flat, and are now ready for the appearance of the second theme. Here comes another twist. You may remember from our program on sonata form that the second theme of a symphonic movement should provide a contrast with the first theme, not only in key but also in feeling; that is, if the first theme is strong and manly, the second theme is likely to be sweet and feminine. Or vice versa. Anyway, in this case the first theme as you heard was playful and bouncy, so we are led to expect a second theme that will contrast by being sweet and smooth. And what do we get? Anything but. Because out comes a jaunty little marching tune, whistled by the tiny, tinny piccolo:

And so on. We've had another surprise. You see, most musical jokes are surprises, just as most other jokes are: You expect one thing and you get another, and somehow that tickles your funny bone. Nobody knows why. And this surprising, silly second theme is even sillier when it comes back in the recapitulation, because this time it's played not even by the piccolo but by one single solo violin, who, forcing out that squeaky little tune over the accompaniment of a whole brass section.

It's like Mickey Mouse leading a football cheer—that high, puny voice competing with a whole brass band. And speaking of the brass band, my favorite joke of the whole movement is made by that hefty trombone back there who introduces this tune each time it comes with those pompous two notes:

As you'll see when we play the whole movement, all through this section of the recapitulation which leads up to the squeaky second theme, that trombone keeps plowing in with his two notes, always in the wrong places, as though he's skipped fifty bars of music by mistake and has come in too soon:

Poor man—he's absolutely lost! But he doesn't give up, he keeps trying, like Pluto in those same cartoons:

Thank goodness! He's made it at last. Now he's in the right place. And then the cartoon ends in a burst of pride and glory for everyone.

Naturally I can't tell you all the jokes in advance; I've got to leave some for you to discover yourselves. Which I hope you will, so that you get the maximum enjoyment out of this delightful first movement of the Ninth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich.

The second movement of the Ninth Symphony by Shostakovich doesn't seem to be a joke at all at first. It's a quiet, sweet little waltz, actually rather sad. There is no horseplay here, as there was with the trombone in the first movement; in fact, the trumpets and trombones don't play at all in this piece, and neither does the percussion. It's all on a much smaller scale, almost like chamber music, with haunting long melodies played by solo woodwind instruments. It opens with this clarinet solo:

And so it goes on, wending its melancholy way. Later that same long line is repeated by the solo flute and at the very end by our old friend the piccolo who as you'll see, has changed from his perky personality in the first movement into this gentle, wistful one. And in between these different woodwind solos, the strings play strange, yearning waves of melody:

Rather brooding, isn't it? Very Russian. Now certainly none of this material sounds particularly humorous or jokey. Then where does the humor come in? Didn't I say that this whole symphony was a comedy? All right—let me explain. The humor of this movement is that it doesn't belong in a symphony at all—especially a Ninth Symphony. With its reduced, chamber-size orchestra and its sad little waltz-themes, it's more like what used to be called Salon Music—that is, music not so much for the concert hall as for hotel-lobbies and old-fashioned restaurants, or maybe for a private, elegant tea-party. It's a piece that might have been called, in times gone by, "Valse Mélancolique"— or something like that—which doesn't just mean a melancholy waltz, but suggests a whole era of grand, faded elegance. And the fact that Shostakovich puts this of all things into his Ninth Symphony shows a very subtle brand of humor—nothing to make you fall on the floor with laughter, but to fill you with a light, sweet, unexpected pleasure. Again, it's the unexpected quality of it that makes you smile, even a melancholy smile. So here is the very unsymphonic second movement of this most unusual symphony.

Pretty, charming, sweet music—and anything but symphonic, I think you'll agree. But now, enough of melancholy; from here on in, the jokes fly thick and fast. The three little movements which conclude this symphony are all joined together, and played continuously, like one big stream of fun. First there is the scherzo, the traditionally humorous movement that occurs in almost every symphony. In fact, the word scherzo means "joke" in Italian, and Shostakovich's scherzo is no exception. It's fast, lighthearted, and brilliant, full of rollicking rhythms, delicious wrong notes, and startling twists of harmony. And right in the middle of this playful movement there is suddenly a stamping Spanish rhythm, over which a solo trumpet blares out a startling Spanish-type tune, like bullfight music:

Now what in the world is a Spanish bullfighter doing in this symphony? Well, as I said, it's full of surprises; anything can happen. It's as though suddenly, at a party, someone grabbed the Spanish shawl off the piano, wrapped himself in it, and gave out with a wild gypsy dance. It's insane.

But the best joke of the scherzo is still to come: Which is it simply dies. Imagine, this rollicking piece suddenly winds down, like an old phonograph, and comes to an embarrassed stop on the most unlikely note, as if it didn't know quite what to do or where to go. And where it does go is the most unexpected place of all—straight into the fourth movement, which is a total surprise.

It's only two pages long—you can't really even call it a movement—but in those two pages we find the main joke of the whole symphony, because the music suddenly becomes slow and pompous and solemn. Imagine, in the middle of this happy little symphony, the trombones, with all their might, thunder out a majestic fanfare, as if to introduce some great tragic utterance:

Good heavens, what a change! Is this joke symphony really going to pieces? What are we doing with great utterances? It's gone insane. Well, let's see what this tragic statement turns out to be: It turns out to be a bassoon solo, in a free reciting style, very mournful and very tragic:

Now that doesn't seem to belong in this symphony any more than that Spanish fandango we heard before. Why just this bassoon solo? I'll tell you: It's a private musical joke. Because what Shostakovich is doing is imitating a similar passage in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony—the part that introduces the famous Ode to Joy, which I'm sure you know.

You know that. Yes, I see you do. Well, just before that place in the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven has put this recitation by the cellos and basses:

And now here Shostakovich in his Ninth Symphony has his mournful bassoon doing much the same thing, even in the same key,

as if to say: This is going to be a real Ninth Symphony, tragic and monumental and everything! Just like Beethoven! So he has his trombones repeat the pompous fanfare, and again he has the bassoon wail out that cadenza, only even more mournful now, and more "Russian," more emotional. And that's the end of the whole fourth movement, because, super-surprise of all, that same doleful bassoon, without so much as drawing breath from his last note slyly sneaks into a kittenish little dance tune.

And the tune gradually gathers momentum, as little by little the whole orchestra picks it up, until soon we're galloping away into the fifth and final movement, which is a brilliant, breathless rondo.

And so it turns out that after all, that pompous little fourth movement was just a decoy, to lure us into expecting a real Ninth Symphony, a great Beethovenish one—and then only to find that it's still that same darling little Shostakovich Ninth! It's like sitting down to a big serious banquet and being served hotdogs and potato chips. Some people might not think that very funny, either, but I'm sorry for them; because they won't get the jokes in this symphony. You see, you have to have as much of a sense of humor to appreciate this music as Shostakovich had to have in order to write it. And I very much hope that you do, so that you can now enjoy these concluding three movements—that Spanish-type scherzo, then the pompous trombone-and-bassoon bit, and the exciting final joyride. Happy listening! And Happy Birthday, Dmitri Shostakovich!


© 1966, Amberson Holdings LLC.
All rights reserved.

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