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Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Opus 43, between September 1935 and May 1936, after abandoning some preliminary sketch material. In January 1936, halfway through this period, Pravda—under direct orders from Joseph Stalin—published the infamous editorial 'Chaos Instead of Music' that denounced the composer and specifically targeted his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Despite this attack, and despite the oppressive political climate of the time, Shostakovich not only completed the symphony but also planned for its premiere, scheduled for December 1936 in Leningrad. At some point during rehearsals he changed his mind and withdrew the work. It was finally premiered on December 30, 1961 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra led by Kirill Kondrashin.


The work is in three movements and lasts approximately one hour. The outer movements each last 25 minutes or more, while the middle movement only takes some eight or nine minutes. This very unusual proportional design represents only one of the larger challenges that face any listener who casually attempts to penetrate the surface of the work and perceive its inner workings.

1. Allegretto, poco moderato - Presto - Tempo 1°

:If the first movement of a symphony succeeds as a musical statement only by following the rules of traditional sonata form fairly closely, then the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement initially comes across as a colossal failure. Closer examination reveals what has been described as "a hide and seek relationship with sonata form." Even more detailed study shows that Shostakovich is using his favored version of sonata form, wherein the recapitulation presents the material from the exposition in reverse order. The composer’s very effective obscuring of this approach makes understanding the movement’s structure quite difficult compared to most of his other symphonies. The following table lays out some points to consider:

Sonata-form elements Shostakovich's obscuration techniques
Two contrasting main themes Main themes surrounded by significant secondary material
Themes go through developmental processes and eventually re-appear in something akin to original forms Secondary material receives much more attention than customary
Tonic key anchors opening and closing Themes reappear in recapitulation in reverse order & opposite orchestration
Second theme initially appears in a contrasting key First appearances of main themes in exposition separated by much intervening music
Recapitulation begins with same introductory music as exposition Contrasts of tonality not often used to distinguish thematic or structural areas
First theme area and second theme area approximately the same size Recapitulation much shorter than other main sections
Substantial thematic "development" takes place within exposition section.

:Because of the many elements that conceal, the movement seems to be little more than a free fantasia consisting of almost nothing except development, making the true arrival of the second theme and the development section especially difficult to ascertain. The crazed, high-speed fugato for the strings that appears partway through the development section is probably the most extreme example in the movement of thematic development seemingly unrelated to the main material, even though it actually has its roots in the first theme.
2. Moderato, con moto

:This movement is a Mahler-like ländler/intermezzo in rondo form where two contrasting themes appear in alternation, both being imaginatively transformed and recombined upon their variant returns. At times the movement recalls the scherzi from Mahler's Second and Seventh symphonies, even down to details of scoring or melodic shape. The movement ends with the final statement of the first theme accompanied by a remarkable “ticking” passage for castanets, wood block, and snare drum.

3. Largo - Allegro

:The answers to most structural questions in the first movement become reasonably evident after sustained investigation, while such questions hardly exist in the second movement. The third movement, although comparable in scope to the first, superficially appears to offer fewer problems to the listener. Yet serious study, far from providing ready answers or even any confirmation of hunches, often serves only to heighten perplexity. Does the movement have four reasonably self-contained sections? Five? Is there some other general architectural plan in place? How self-contained are the sections? Just where do sections begin and end? What differentiates sections? How do sections relate to one another? The questions persist and do not get completely resolved even after one has settled upon a provisional structure—which may well not match another person’s resolution.

:The shadow of Mahler looms large behind the entire symphony, nowhere more so than in the opening minutes of the finale. This formidable and occasionally somewhat bitter funeral march ultimately leads into a lengthy series of fast-moving episodes frequently dominated by a feeling of the waltz. These episodes cover a wide range of styles, now light-hearted, now pensive, now ironically silly, now ambiguous—and they often combine more than one of these at a time—but all suggest dance rhythms in one way or another. The last section of the movement, appearing after all sense of the dance has evaporated, recalls aspects of the opening funeral march but reverses it (by beginning loud and ultimately dying away) and gives it an emotional intensity nearly unrivalled in Shostakovich’s output.

:The range of expression to be found here represents another confounding element. This has led some to see the final movement operating at a far deeper level than the preceding two, not only in range and complexity of feeling but also in quality of imagination, while others have not been so convinced by the apparent hodgepodge of styles. Hugh Ottaway, for example, called the close "a magnificent non sequitur".


Shostakovich uses an immense orchestra in this work, numbering well over one hundred musicians. This, combined with the extreme technical and emotional demands placed on the performers, makes the Symphony No. 4 among his least-performed scores, yet it ranks as one of his most important and personal works.

It is scored for the following instruments:

2 Piccolos
4 Flutes
4 Oboes (4th doubling on Cor anglais)
1 E-flat clarinet
4 Clarinets
1 Bass clarinet
3 Bassoons
1 Contrabassoon

2 Harps
16-20 1st Violins
14-18 2nd Violins
12-16 Violas
12-16 Violoncellos
10-14 Double basses


8 Horn
4 Trumpets
3 Trombones
2 Tubas

6 Timpani (two players)
Bass drum
Snare drum
Cymbals (crash and suspended)
Wood block

Historical overview


Shostakovich was just days away from turning 29 when he began the Fourth Symphony, in September 1935. His Second and Third symphonies, completed in 1927 and 1929, had been patriotic works with choral finales, but the new score would prove to be quite different. Toward the end of 1935 he told an interviewer, "I am not afraid of difficulties. It is perhaps easier, and certainly safer, to follow a beaten path, but it is also dull, uninteresting and futile."

Shostakovich’s allusion to “difficulties” most likely refers to difficulties with composing the symphony, especially given the fact that he had abandoned sketches for it some months earlier and had begun anew. Serious difficulties that he may not have anticipated arose on January 28, 1936, when he was about halfway through work on the symphony. On that date Pravda printed an unsigned editorial entitled "Chaos Instead of Music," which singled out his internationally successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for particularly savage condemnation. The fact that the piece was unsigned indicated that it represented the official Party position. Rumors circulated for a long time that Stalin had directly ordered this attack after he attended a performance of the opera and stormed out after the first act.

Pravda published two more articles in the same vein within the next two and a half weeks. On February 3, "Ballet Falsehood" assailed his ballet The Limpid Stream, and "Clear and Simple Language in Art" appeared on February 13. Although this last article was technically an editorial attacking Shostakovich for "formalism", it appeared in the "Press Review" section. Stalin, under cover of the Central Committee may have singled out Shostakovich for three reasons:

  • The plot and music of Lady Macbeth infuriated him.
  • The opera contradicted Stalin's intended social and cultural direction for the nation at that period.
  • Shostakovich was hailed as a genius, both in the Soviet Union and in the West.

Despite these intense official criticisms of his compositions, Shostakovich continued work on the symphony—though he simultaneously made the politically savvy move of refusing to allow a concert performance of the last act of Lady Macbeth. He explained to a friend, "The audience, of course, will applaud—it's considered bon ton to be in the opposition, and then there'll be another article with a headline like 'Incorrigible Formalist.'" He announced publicly that the new symphony would be his "composer's credo." Shortly thereafter, his musicologist friend Ivan Sollertinsky declared at a Composers' Union meeting that the Symphony No. 4 would redeem the composer and prove to be Shostakovich's 'Eroica.'

Once he completed the score, Shostakovich was apparently uncertain how to proceed. His new symphony did not emulate the style of Nikolai Myaskovsky's socialist realist Sixteenth Symphony, The Aviators, or Vissarion Shebalin's song-symphony The Heroes of Perekop, and contained nothing placatory at all in it, having been conceived before the Pravda attacks. Showing the new symphony to friends did not help. One asked, frightened, what Shostakovich thought the reaction from Pravda would be—in other words, what the reaction from Stalin would be. Shostakovich jumped up from the piano, scowling, replying sharply, "I don't write for Pravda, but for myself."

Despite the increasingly repressive political atmosphere, Shostakovich continued to plan for the symphony's premiere, scheduled by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra for December 11, 1936. The orchestra's then-music director, Fritz Stiedry, was a Viennesemarker musician active in the Soviet Union since 1933, with a reputation as an able musician. The composer also secured Otto Klemperer to conduct the symphony's first performance outside the USSR.


What happened next remains unclear. At some point during rehearsals (claims have ranged from a single rehearsal to ten), Shostakovich withdrew the symphony, claiming that the finale needed reworking. The Pravda articles on his work were very likely a major factor, since they had prompted every major opera house in the country to cancel all remaining performances of Lady Macbeth. There can be no denying that the level of tension surrounding all Soviet citizens and especially the composer was very high and increasing almost daily. It is important to remember that the first of the Moscow show trials, the first high point of the Great Purge, took place in August 1936. More recently, Shostakovich's friend Isaak Glikman stated in his book Story of a Friendship that the symphony was withdrawn because of pressure exerted on the Leningrad Philharmonic's manager from party officials.

At the same time, Shostakovich may genuinely not have been satisfied with the symphony. In an interview given in the late 1950s, Shostakovich explained that the work as a whole suffered from "grandiosomania" although it did have some parts he liked. As late as 1974, he said in a BBC television documentary that despite repeated revisions, he still did not think he had succeeded in getting the work right. This statement represents another version of the basic explanation he had given from the outset. Musical judgment—concerning inherent structural questions as well as the technical difficulty that the work presented to the players—and political expediency very likely both played roles in Shostakovich's decision to withdraw his Fourth Symphony. What cannot be determined is how much weight each of these points had in his decision.

Shostakovich's withdrawal of the Fourth Symphony probably saved his career and possibly his life. By doing so he entered into what might be termed “retreat” mode, where for the time being he concentrated on writing film music. This represented a safe move politically, given the fact that Stalin was an avid film enthusiast, fascinated with all aspects of the industry.

Belated premiere

The manuscript score for the Fourth Symphony was lost during or just after World War II. Shostakovich had the work published in a two-piano reduction in 1946, which remained the only public manifestation of the music until its reappearance. Eventually all of the original instrumental parts from 1936 surfaced in the Leningrad Philharmonic's archives, whereupon the orchestral score was reconstructed note-for-note. Conductor Kirill Kondrashin then led the premiere on December 30, 1961 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. The Western premiere took place the following summer at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the young Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

Soviet critics were excited at the prospect of finding a major missing link in Shostakovich's creative oeuvre, yet refrained from value-laden comparisons. They generally placed the Fourth Symphony firmly in its chronological context and explored its significance as a way-station on the road to the more conventional Fifth Symphony. Western critics were more overtly judgmental, especially since the Fourth was premiered back-to-back with the Twelfth Symphony in Edinburgh. The critical success of the Fourth juxtaposed with the critical disdain for the Twelfth led to speculation that Shostakovich's creative powers were on the wane.

Influence of Mahler

The symphony is strongly influenced by Gustav Mahler, whose music Shostakovich had been closely studying with Ivan Sollertinsky during the preceding ten years. (Friends remembered seeing Mahler's Seventh Symphony on Shostakovich's piano at that time.) The duration, the size of the orchestra, the style and range of orchestration, and the recurrent use of "banal" melodic material juxtaposed with more high-minded, even "intellectual," material, all come from Mahler.

Aside from the entire second movement, one of the most Mahlerian moments appears at the outset of the third movement—a funeral march reminiscent of many similar passages in the Austrian's output. Another such point occurs near the beginning of the deeply brooding coda that follows the last full-orchestra outburst, with the descending half-step idea in the woodwinds clearly pointing to the A Major-to-A minor chord progression that characterizes much of Mahler's Sixth Symphony.

Notable recordings

The last two recordings include performances of the surviving original sketches of the Fourth Symphony's first movement.

  • Rustem Hayroudinoff and Colin Stone (Chandos; premiere recording, made in 2004, of the 1940's two-piano reduction)


  1. Steinberg, 541.
  2. Steinberg, 545.
  3. Layton, 204.
  4. Steinberg, 545.
  5. Freed, 3.
  6. Schwarz, Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia
  7. Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, 110.
  8. Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, 121.
  9. Muzykal'naia akademiia, 4 (1997), 72.
  10. Muzykal'naia akademiia, 4 (1997), 74.
  11. Steinberg, 541.
  12. Steinberg, 542.
  13. Steinberg, 542.
  14. MacDonald, 108.
  15. Steinberg, 542.
  16. Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, 130-131.
  17. MacDonald, 108 + ft. 1.
  18. Fay, 226.
  19. Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, 136.


  • Fay, Laurel E. Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). ISBN 0-19-518251-0.
  • Freed, Richard, Notes for RCA/BMG 60887: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4; St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
  • Layton, Robert, ed. Robert Simpson, The Symphony: Volume 2, Mahler to the Present Day (New York: Drake Publishing, Inc., 1972). ISBN 87749-245-X.
  • Leonard, James, All Music Guide to Classical Music (San Francisco: Backbeat books, 2005). ISBN 0-87930-865-8.
  • Maes, Francis, tr. Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans, A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002). ISBN 0-520-21815-9.
  • Schwarz, Boris, Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia: Enlarged Edition, 1917-1981 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983). ISBN 0-253-33956-1.
  • Steinberg, Michael, The Symphony (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). ISBN 0-19-506177-2.
  • Volkov, Solomon, tr. Antonina W. Bouis, Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). ISBN 0-375-41082-1.
  • Wilson, Elizabeth, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Second Edition (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994, 2006). ISBN 0-691-12886-3.

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