1. Ottaway, H. Shostakovich Symphonies pp. 34 - 35
  2. The Music of Shostakovich - The Symphonies p.83
  3. Ian MacDonald The New Shostakovich p.157
  4. The Music of Shostakovich - The Symphonies p.83
  5. Shostakovich Symphonies p.35
  6. The New Shostakovich p.160
  7. The New Shostakovich p.160

IV Thematic Symbolism in the Leningrad

The opening movement of the Leningrad has an extreme complexity in the deployment and development of its material. Much of the thematic material is altered every time that it returns and themes are subjected to increased fragmentation and alteration as the movement progresses, especially at the climax of the central section of the movement where all themes are distorted to the point where they are almost unrecognisable. In terms of traditional structure, the movement is related to a sonata form structure as a result of its tonal architecture and deployment of themes.

The question of the war theme - its suitability and treatment - is part of a wider problem concerning the first movement. This is a problem of form and content. It is already clear that this Allegretto is the most programmatic movement, but the form that emerges is a misplaced and misshapen sonata.

[...] The first movement undoubtedly reflects something of the original intention, and there is more than a suspicion that the recapitulation, despite its poetry and some deft touches, is a compromise between the programme and the need to complete a balanced design.1

Although the balance and weight of the material do not reflect the traditional usage of the exposition - development - recapitulation proportions in sonata form, one can quite clearly detect the relevant material appearing in the conventional tonal areas at both the opening and close of the movement. This description of the form helps in the discussion of the musical logic of the piece and gives a background against which to the discuss the attachment of external referents to the thematic material. I feel that Ottaway’s description of the form as “misplaced and misshapen” denies the fact that the music adheres to its own logic and I disagree with his assertion that the recapitulation compromises either the programme or the musical progression of the movement.

Harmonically, the vast majority of this movement has very little to do with common practice techniques. Pedal points abound throughout - not just notes, but whole chords. Grating dissonances are often left deliberately unresolved. The logic of the harmony would also seem to be dictated to some extent by the things that the composer portrays in the music although, again, this does not necessarily mean compromise. Simultaneous consonant enharmonies - not heard, but seen in the score - are a clue to the composer’s intentions with regard to the use of harmonic language. Such encoding of meaning in the written score has precedents as far back as the Renaissance. I feel that a satisfactory explanation for this incidence can only refer to the programme of the work. Individual aspects of harmonic usage will be dealt with as they occur in the progress of the movement.

One of the main characteristics of the writing in the first movement of the Leningrad is the overwhelming predominance of unison and octave writing, both in the first subject area and the march theme of the central section. If one is to believe Shostakovich's own descriptions of his compositional methods, this aspect of the composition is not merely the result of orchestrating from a piano part but an integral part of his conception of the work. The combination of many instruments in melodic unison and octaves is contrasted with the writing in the second subject area. Here the textures are more homophonic, with the melody given to just one instrument or section. It is almost as if the composer is attempting to present the isolation and tragedy of the individual, in contrast to the supposed unity of purpose of the people in general in the first subject area. This unity amongst families of instruments develops into cacophony at the climax of the movement where different sections of the orchestra are pitted against each other, each trying to outdo the others by sheer weight of volume.

The movement opens in C major with a theme, in string unison and octaves supported by two bassoons, which has traditionally been associated with the normal life and happiness of the Soviet people.


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Even without the benefit of Shostakovich’s own words, Blokker and Dearling, in their 1979 book on the symphonies, questioned this interpretation, stating that the theme “seems earthbound and frustrated”2.Ian MacDonald says of this theme,

This, surely, is the studied simplicity of totalitarian poster-art - of the big, square-jawed smiths and lathe-workers, the ruddy-faced milkmaids and harvest-girls of Socialist Realism’s “radiant future”.3

In MacDonald’s opinion, this is a satire on the forced happiness of the Soviet people who knew that any sign of disaffection with their lot could mean deportation or execution. Musically, the insistence on Eb in the second part of the phrase also seems to deny the happiness that is supposed to be portrayed in the melody, dragging it down in the manner described by Blokker. The accompaniment for the first statement of this theme consists entirely of tonic, and tonic / dominant interjections by basses, timpani, and trumpets.


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I feel that it is not coincidental that the rhythm of the first bar above (bar 3 of the piece) is the same as that which appears towards the end of the movement as an ominous warning in octave horns - separating the recapitulations of the exposition’s three main themes. Ian MacDonald also asserts that the two-note motifs that follow occur throughout the works of Shostakovich as a musical representation of Stalin, the all pervasive “Big Brother” of Soviet life.

The second statement of the theme - already altered - introduces the dissonant clashes that are used to characterise conflict in this work. In example 3, the thematic statement across three octaves in woodwind is played against an altering C major chord, in octaves in trombones and horns. On the third beat of the second bar, this produces a clash of F, F#, and G, in two octaves. Already, the technique of individual musical lines carrying out their own logic regardless of the other aspects of the music has started. The tension that is asserted by brass instruments throughout the movement has begun.


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This certainly does not sound to me like the “happy and peaceful” life which it was originally thought to portray. The interruptions to the theme at six bars after 3 seem to sound an ominous tone - at odds with the direction of the theme.

As the tension of the first subject area subsides, there is a melancholy link to the second subject area. This area revolves tonally, as expected, around the dominant area, although not in a strictly diatonic sense. It is subdivided into two distinct thematic areas, (examples 4 and 5) which seem to speak more of regret and loss than of the happiness of Shostakovich’s original programme. The first theme (S IIa) is played by strings - first violins playing the melodic theme.


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The second theme (S IIb) is played by woodwind with the melody in first oboe.


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Both themes are repeated after their initial statements and a third statement of the first theme becomes a codetta and link to the central section of the movement, with the addition of some beautifully pathetic chords at 16. To me, these sound like the purest expressions of grief following the sad reminisces of the second subject area. The harmony from 15 changes from the G of the S II area to Bb and then arrives on a C6 / A min7 chord at 17. At 18 this changes to a suspended second chord on E (E F# B) that dies away to silence. There is no preparation of the Eb major to follow, a deliberate separation of ideas by the composer.

The central section of this movement most clearly defines the programme of conflict in this symphony. It is, according to Blokker

One of the most notorious and slandered passages in Twentieth-century music …4

In part, it is because of this section that the symphony fell so quickly from the repertoire in the West. The symphony was thought by most Western academics to bear no relevance beyond the circumstances of its genesis amid the cruellest conflict known to humankind. The repetitive nature of a theme which remains melodically undeveloped for nearly two-hundred-and-seventy bars (about nine minutes at Shostakovich’s metronome marking) has been seen as a failure in terms of musical logic - too subservient to the programme and too much directed towards common understanding to be a success as “serious” music. Also, the nature of the theme itself has been criticised.

The tune is facile, jaunty, perhaps slightly cocky, but certainly not menacing. If Shostakovich really intended to show Nazism on the march - it is often alleged that he did - he must have been dreaming of a paper tiger.5

Some of the statements can sound very much like padding, as if Shostakovich lacked the inventiveness to create equal interest in all the restatements and there are one or two that can seem positively futile from a developmental point of view - if one chooses to interpret them in that way. However, it is also possible that there are more subtle meanings at play in this music. Ian MacDonald again asserts that there are parts of this section that assume the level of parody of the Soviet state and its institutions. He states that the deadpan delivery for which Shostakovich was noted among his friends when forced to read statements prepared for him by others is also present in the delivery of the march of the Leningrad Symphony.

As for variation IV, this is yurodivy lunacy at its most impenetrable, a frankly asinine affair in which a bassoon traipses around two bars behind an oboe, doggedly reiterating everything it says.6

As the last chord of the second subject area dies away, the snare drum begins an ostinato that will persist throughout the central section of this movement.


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In this central section, in Eb, there are twelve repetitions of a twenty-two bar unit, increasing in volume and dissonance. This is followed by a development of the theme as it fragments amid total cacophony, finally dissolving into the recapitulation of first and second subject areas and an eventual return to the tonic key. The melodic theme, which is taken by many to be the main focus of the march section, is seventeen-and-a-half bars long, and in each restatement after the first is preceded by a bar’s rest, which is used to introduce textural changes.


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The meaning incorporated in this theme is a matter that has generated much discussion in recent years. Traditionally, there has been a vague association of the march theme with the scalic descent in the third bar of the German national anthem - Deutschland Über Alles .


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This association may have entered the composer’s mind, but the theme has far stronger connections with two other melodies, both of which bear relevance to the work. The first of these is from the Merry Widow by Lehar. The song You’ll find me at Maxim’s , contains a melody which has a much greater resemblance to Shostakovich’s “war” theme.


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This work is also widely said to have been Hitler’s favourite operetta, and so has very strong associations with the Nazis. As Shostakovich stated, it was not his intention to depict war in a naturalistic manner, and so a melody with Nazi associations would serve his purpose better than a simply descriptive melody. However, the theme does not only have German associations. A version of the song also existed in Russia and was often sung by the composer to his son, Maxim. At the very height of the ensuing mayhem, the melody takes on a more distinctively Russian flavour. It turns out to be related to an opening theme from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which appears under similar musical circumstances in the finale of that work.


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Again, it is Ian MacDonald who has discovered this association of themes, and although the thematic relationship is almost certainly as he describes, his interpretation of the key centre at that point is somewhat liberal. The melody is in fact on the dorian mode on Ab (diatonic key of Gb) at this point, and the insistent F#s in accompanying instruments emphasise the tritone of the home key.

Seven bars after figure 49, at the height of a tremendous racket and following a scarifying six-bar trill across most of the woodwind section, the march modulates grimly into C sharp minor to quote the first theme of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony - or rather six descending notes from it […] in the key of its hectic triumph in the symphony’s finale.7

The final aspect of the march section is a linking motif that consists of two five beat units separated by a crotchet rest. These are linked to the main theme by the repeated notes. This link returns, unaltered apart from textural differences, with each repetition of the march theme.


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The main melody, the linking theme, and the bar’s rest combine to form a unit of twenty-two bars. This unit returns twelve times, with the elements described above unaltered in their linear structure. Despite the fact that the melody and link are the most prominent part of the texture in this section, it is in the accompanying, or rather opposing, forces that the development takes place. In my textural analysis of this section, I shall use the term accompaniment to describe what is really an independent development of material which develops with its own logic, this being in most cases directly contrary to that of the main theme. This section is developmental in a different way from that associated with sonata forms in the traditional textbook sense, and not merely repetitive - as some have seen it. It is the relationship, balance and proportions of the different elements of the music that are developed, rather than a strictly linear thematic development. This is quite a departure for Shostakovich, who bases much of his musical development on the thematic transformation of melodic ideas. Here he has embarked on a musical development in which a static element is contrasted with a changing element and an eventual compromise reached between the two. The ostinato on the side drum can be thought of as belonging to the opposing force to the main theme but I feel that it is more a representation of the background against which the ensuing conflict will be played out - always present, but not partisan to either side.

The first statement of the melodic theme begins five bars after 19 in violins I & II and violas in unison, using three different articulations (arco, col legno & pizzicato) to produce an effect of peace or distance. The cellos and basses join in for the linking motif, all strings now pizzicato.

The second statement, on flute at 21, introduces the first accompaniment figure, which consists of a syncopated oscillation of tonic and dominant notes, effectively giving a pedal on the tonic chord.


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It is possible that this consonance between the two elements is representative of some aspect of the peace enjoyed before the arrival of war but, if so, it will not last for long.

The third statement, at 23, introduces the first dissonance with what is essentially the juxtaposition of the chords Fb and Eb (without thirds) in the accompaniment underneath the theme. (Cellos and basses).


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These contradictory harmonic implications continue throughout this section of the movement and, at this point, there is no doubting the sinister undertones of the bass instruments. The theme, in flute and piccolo, is a duet rather than octave doubling, mostly using consonant intervals but not generally being concerned with giving a sense of triadic harmony. However, the final three notes of the theme, combined with the cello, do give a perfect cadence on to Eb octaves.

The fourth statement of this theme sees the introduction of an accompaniment rhythm that will persist for seven variations, until just before 41, continually becoming more dissonant and dominant in the texture.


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The dissonance that disturbed the previous statement has disappeared, but the means by which it will return more violently has been established. The melody is taken here by oboe and bassoon, the bassoon merely copying the oboe an octave lower, and beginning each segment of the theme in the bar following the end of the oboe’s statement of that segment. This is the variation referred to by Ian MacDonald as “yurodivy lunacy”. The dynamic of the side drum ostinato increases for the first time from ppp to pp , signalling the beginning of a gradual crescendo that builds to the climax of the movement.

At 29, the textural density increases with the introduction of the piano to the accompaniment, and the harmonisation of the melody in trumpet by two trombones. There is a general increase in dynamic to p.


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The harmonisation is in the same rhythm as the melody and consists of stepwise movement in thirds, with parallel leaps between the segments of the melody (excepting the eighth bar where there is a coincidence of F, G, and Ab). While many of the implications of the three instruments refer to triadic harmony, the trombones here are part of the opposing accompaniment. Their parallel stepwise diatonic thirds will later turn into parallel major thirds, moving in minor seconds, threatening to overwhelm the main theme.

The sixth statement at 28 (mf ) again involves two sets of instruments following each other around - this time strictly at a bars distance. The clarinet and Eb clarinet are copied by the oboe and cor anglais an octave lower. Shostakovich introduces a tonic Eb chord on the third beat of every bar for this variation and the two which follow. It is introduced a bar before 31 by three horns, doubling higher strings and the piano. It is then continued by the piano and strings. This is played against the D and C of the bass accompaniment, possibly trying to resolve the contradictory tendencies of the two aspects of the overall texture.


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The seventh variation (f at 33), sees the accompaniment gain strength with the addition of bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon to the oscillating bass line. Two trumpets and a trombone reinforce the third beat Eb chord. Divided first and second violins state the theme in consecutive major triads.


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The two inner voices move in consecutive major thirds as the two outer voices play the theme in octaves. Here, the use of thirds is a development of the diatonic thirds of the fifth variation. While not dissonant in the language of the symphony, these thirds introduce chromatic notes and more distinctly unresolved dissonances in terms of common practice. As in the fifth variation, these thirds do not seem to be at odds with the march theme but are a step towards later developments where they come into direct conflict with that theme. At the end of this statement, the intervening link receives its first alteration in scoring as the string section play it bowed for the first time at a dynamic level of forte.

The eighth statement (f ) is exactly the same as the seventh in pitch terms, the only difference being reorchestration, so that the melody is spread across violins, violas, and cellos at the same pitches as before, these now being doubled in the same octave by clarinets and oboes. The bass Eb to D oscillation also gains strength with the addition of timpani and tuba. The link at the end of this statement is augmented by the addition of bassoons, trumpets, trombones and tuba.

In the ninth variation (ff ) the accompaniment figure changes to the higher woodwind, violins, and xylophone as the march theme is taken over by the bass woodwind, horns, and strings. The weight given to the melody is augmented by the addition, for the first time, of auxiliary brass instruments in the form of four extra horns. This gives a unison line of eight horns with violas and first cellos supported an octave lower by bassoons, contrabassoon, bass clarinet, second cellos, and double basses. Although the accompaniment is by no means drowned out by the opposing forces, the sheer weight of the main theme at this stage sounds to be indominatable. However, this is not to last, as in the next variation, at 39, the theme is pitted against the rest of the orchestra playing the accompaniment, which has by this stage developed in to the figure shown in example 18.


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The clashing diminished octaves coupled with major and minor ninths raise the music to a fever pitch and threaten to destroy the coherence of the march theme. Again, there is the reappearance of wandering thirds, nominally coupled with the theme, but still having no apparent harmonic connection to them. These are in second horn coupled with first trumpet and fourth horn coupled with tuba.


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Given that their weight of volume equally balances the trombones and trumpets playing the theme, these have a further destabilising effect on the integrity of the march theme. In this variation, also, there is the first evidence of the melody breaking out of the confines of the seventeen-and-a-half bar segment to which it has previously been confined. Four bars before 41, on the upbeat that begins the link figure, eight horns with cellos scream out an inverted form of the theme in conflict with the link, as if trying to overwhelm it.


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At 41, in the second last complete statement of the melodic theme, the errant thirds that have been appearing since the fifth variation finally make their full force felt. The major thirds, moving in stepwise chromatic motion over the range of an augmented fifth and spread over three octaves, contest with the higher strings and woodwind, also in three octaves at an fff dynamic.


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There is no apparent pattern to the movement of the thirds, either in relation to the theme or in relation to themselves. They seem to be a force of chaos threatening to tear apart the texture of the music. In common with the tenth variation, there is another partial statement of the inverted theme over the link motif. This time, however, it is in the higher woodwind and all but inaudible against the link motif in all strings, brass and lower woodwind with the addition of the timpani. The timpani resumes its dominant / tonic oscillations at this point.

For the final variation of the complete march theme, the melody switches back to the combined trombones and trumpets. The timpani continue the dominant / tonic pedal point, joining the rest of the orchestra only when the note C is played in the accompaniment. The accompaniment changes completely to a non-chromatic single melody line that encompasses six octaves - the entire range of the orchestra.


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This accompaniment at first moves in units of ten beats, which repeat themselves regardless of the time signature. By the tenth bar of the theme, however, the pattern goes astray and there follow units of eight, ten, nine, and six bars. It is possible that this rearrangement is to facilitate the arrival at Eb major three bars before 45. Other than this, it appears to follow no discernible logical pattern.

The inverted theme again disturbs the link motif at two bars before 45 and this time it seems that success is achieved. Instead of the expected Eb on the last beat of the link motif, an E natural appears in the auxiliary brass section of three trumpets, four horns and three trombones. The inverted theme enters a diminished fifth away from where it has just sounded and the rest of the orchestra abruptly changes to an A major chord. (Example 23)


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There is still tension between the two forces, however, as the theme plays minor sixths and sevenths against the static A major chord. The two aspects of the music - theme and accompaniment - have arrived at the same tonic but are still in different modes. The key signature changes to A minor, which may be a suggestion that the accompaniment is the aspect which is dissonant - the melody being in the “right” key. The inverted theme receives some development up as far as 48, where the driving rhythm breaks down. There are increasingly fragmented repeats of the inverted form of the theme as far as 49 when it makes itself more strongly felt again. It is here that the motif associated with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth appears, and eleven bars later an accord is reached between the theme and its accompaniment. This is also, however, the point at which Shostakovich has incorporated a deliberate deception into the music. At 50 the thematic fragment appears in E major. The accompaniment is notated as a chord of Fb maj7, sonically the tonic seventh chord of E major, but spelled enharmonically.


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In the context of the interpretations I have proposed for the symbolism earlier in the movement, this has two possible meanings. Firstly, that conflict between the Party and the people of the Soviet Union has at least temporarily been resolved in pursuance of victory over the Nazis. Whilst the original source of tension between them has not been resolved they are, for the present at least, “marching to the same tune”. The alternative explanation is that both sides, German and Soviet, having engaged the war, are now no different from each other. Conflict, destruction, and brutality have simply become the norm for all people involved. This unity does not last for long, however, and after seven bars the music begins to fragment again.

At 52 the key signature changes back to Eb, but the music remains unstable. There is an attempt to reestablish the original C major tonality by repeated tonic / dominant statements in bass instruments, recalling the opening bars of the movement. Five bars later, the first subject of the movement returns in C major but fails to dominate the texture as dissonant fragments of the march theme continue to destabilise it. By 56, its efforts have been defeated and the music grinds to a halt on a devastated version of the link from the march section.


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At this point, the music begins its journey back to the home key. The link between the first and second subject areas reappears over an unmoving F# major chord. This is followed by a transformed statement of S IIa in F# minor on bassoon which describes the complete desolation following the conflict that has just ended. The second theme from the second subject area returns, beginning in F major but unable to settle in any key, and accompanied by harmonically contradictory interruptions on strings and piano. As it finishes, two bars before 66, there is an ominous warning from four horns doubled in octaves. The opening accompaniment rhythm has returned and now seems to forewarn of more conflict to come.


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The tonic key and opening theme finally reassert themselves at 66, but the first subject no longer contains the vitality and drive that was characteristic of the opening of the movement. It contains the sadness and resignation that had previously appeared in the second subject area. It is interrupted two bars before 68 by the horn motif of example 26 and this is followed by a return of S IIb - now in the tonic. Again the horns interrupt at two bars before 70, and there is a brief return to the march theme and side drum accompaniment, now also in the tonic key. The movement finishes with this theme - its tension unresolved by its appearance in the home key.

The conflict that is portrayed in this movement can have two, or possibly more interpretations. In light of Shostakovich’s subsequent statements, I feel that it is a tirade against totalitarianism generally, but refers specifically to the Soviet system. The temporary enharmonic resolution of themes seems to me to be a direct representation of Soviet society during World War II, as described by many chroniclers of the period. The “terror” was relaxed in order that the people might be united against the common enemy. It was the first time in many years that many Russians could weep openly. Grief at the pain inflicted by the Nazis was allowed and acceptable. In the prewar years, grief had been seen as an expression of dissent and dissatisfaction with the State. The open grief shown in the second subject area could even be thought of as chronologically following the false happiness of the first subject, as the threat of war brought a relaxation in the Party’s persecution of the Soviet people.

The type of thematic allusions contained in the first movement of the work are not used in such a concrete manner in the other movements, apart from a brief return to the opening theme at the end of the final movement. At that point, it is again overcome by dissonance, and the final bars of the symphony contain a triumphant C major chord that is marred by dissonance. My first impression was that this sense of triumph was genuine but, in light of the composer’s comments about the endings of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, it is clear that the victory celebrations are a sham. The people have won the war against the Nazis but they are still subject to the tyranny of their own rulers.