Symphony No. 1: A Listening Guide

On March 5 & 6, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony Orchestra perform Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 in F minor at the Bass Concert Hall.

"Trying to describe Shostakovich to those not familiar with his music is challenging," ponders Peter Bay. "I would say that much of his music is tonal with dissonance used freely to underline tension and tragedy.

"Much of his music is dark and brooding, occasionally sarcastic and humorous, laced with tragic-sounding melodies and harmonies that mirror the turmoil of his personal life."

Ironic before ironic was cool. Sarcasm and humor in a genre stereotyped as heavy and serious. This is Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1, completed in 1925, a unique time in Russian and world history.

The first attempt at communist revolution was in full swing, but the darker days of Stalinist tyranny had not yet come. While food shortages and poverty were rampant, so was hope and enthusiasm. The arts exploded with multifarious groups producing a wide array of music, visual arts, theatre, and film.

This was the setting for the composition of Symphony No. 1. Though a student piece written for Shostakovich's high school graduation, the work saw its premiere performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. This was soon followed up by international performances in Berlin and elsewhere.

"Writing freely from the heart during the Stalin years was not always possible, especially when Stalin was easily offended by what he felt was 'bourgeois' or 'intellectual' music," explains Bay. "Shostakovich was a frequent target of Stalinistic attacks, which goes a long way to explaining why so much of his music is filled with angst."

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