Some critics have thought the final movement operates at a far deeper level than the ones which precede it, not only in range and complexity of feeling but also in quality of imagination. While completing a symmetrical frame for the complete work, it also contains five sections, each contributing its own themes and mood to the drama at hand. Others have not been so convinced, especially since the music moves from funeral music to unbuttoned fun, rising from comedy to a triumphant climax, only to abnegate that resolution. Music writer Hugh Ottaway called this 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: Woodwind:
Difficulties began on January 28, 1936, when Pravda printed its editorial "Chaos Instead of Music." Attacking his internationally successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the author accused the composer of missing "the demands of Soviet culture to banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life." The expressionist accrual of sex, murder and horror in the plot and underlined by the music was foreign to Stalin's tastes and led to a mixture of indignation and irritation. Its themes also ran counter to the social laws Stalin was planning to pass, including a ban on abortion, a tightening of divorce laws between Soviet citizens and a dissolution of marriages between Soviets and foreigners.
The article on Lady Macbeth was just the first difficulty its composer was to face. On February 3, a second article about Shostakovich's music appeared in Pravda, condemning his ballet The Limpid Stream as "Ballet Falsehood." A third article, on "Clear and Simple Language in Art," appeared in Pravda on February 13. Though this article was technically an editorial attacking Shostakovich for "formalism," it appeared in the "Press Review" section. Up to this point Shostakovich would not have been thought to have been worth three such articles in the same publication within a two and a half week period. He was not well known by the mass readership of Pravda in general before the articles appeared. One theory is that Stalin may have singled out Shostakovich for three reasons:
Despite these official protestations about 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 threre'll be another article with a headline like 'Incorrigible Formalist.' He announced publicly that the new symphony would be his "composer's credo. Following that announcement, his musicologist friend Ivan Sollertinsky declared at a Composers' Union meeting that Symphony No. 4 would redeem the composer and the symphony would prove to be Shostakovich's 'Eroica.'
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. Solomon Volkov maintains that Shostakovich meant the Fourth Symphony, especially the finale, as his "creative reply to unjust criticism." At the same time, Shostakovich probably could not help fearing Stalin's reaction if that reply became public.
Despite the oppressive political climate, 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 Viennese 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 U.S.S.R.
Another, very different explanation is that Shostakovich may have truly not been satisfied with the symphony. As late as a year and a half before his death, he said in a BBC television documentary that despite his repeated attempts at revising the Fourth Symphony, he did not think he had succeeded in getting the work right. This still does not totally rule out that even in 1974, the composer thought it best not to bring up the 1936 Pravda article and stay with the explanation he had given all along. It is also possible that both political expediency and musical judgment played roles in Shostakovich's decision to hide his Fourth Symphony. What cannot be determined is how much weight each of these values occupied in his decision.
Through the coming years, he was questioned on the absence of the Fourth Symphony and gave varying explanations as to why he had withdrawn it. In an interview during the late 1950s, Shostakovich explained that the symphony had parts he did not like and felt the work as a whole suffered from "grandiosomania," giving the impression that the piece was beyond repair. Recently, Shostakovich's friend Isaak Glikman stated in his book Diary of a Friendship that the symphony was withdrawn because of pressure exerted on the Leningrad Philharmonic's manager from party officials. He also defended Fritz Stiedry's musicianship against Shostakovich's allegations in Testimony of incompetence.
Regardless of the exact reasons for his doing so, Shostakovich's withdrawal of the Fourth Symphony may, at the very least, have saved his career. He lost a tremendous amount of income from the lack of performance of his works during this period but made up for at least part of it by writing film music. Thus, in official eyes, he had sacrificed his potentially "formalistic" symphony ("formalistic" meaning unneeded by the masses) and plunging into an area where his talents were needed. It did not hurt that Stalin was an avid film enthusiast, fascinated with all aspects of the industry.
Soviet critics were excited at the prospect of finding a major missing link in Shostakovich's creative oevre yet refrained from value-laden comparisons, placing the Fourth Symphony firmly in its chronological context and exploring its significance as an interim step to the more polished Fifth Symphony. Western critics were more overtly judgmental. Especially since the Fourth was premiered back-to-back with the Twelth Symphony at the 1962 Edinburg Festival, the critical succcess of the Fourth alongside the critical disdain of the Twelth led to speculation that Shostakovich's creative powers were on the wane.
"Gigantomania" was used by economist Nicholas de Basily to describe the mood of public life in the Soviet Union during the First and Second Five Year Plans. National consciousness went from inferiority to the West to a tremendous boastfulness which quickly divorced itself from reason. Production quotas were reported "overfilled" by 10 times or more. Already ambitious estimates were inflated into, in de Basily's words, "astronomical figures and projections on a planetary scale." Eventually, this outer inflation produced correspondent inner distortions. A national taste for self-display and theatricality found new, more grandiose expression in the show trials. Similarly, a national love for the fantastic lie (vranyo) became institutionalized in government statistics and official language; from there it blended seamlessly with the outright lie (lozh) of conventional politics. In this context, physical and creative survival for the Soviet elite in the middle-to-late 1930s became a daily struggle.
Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony was intended as a reflection of the Party's "social commission," to depict the new era in epic forms. Much attention had been paid to the problem of the Soviet symphony. The Composers' Union had held a three-day conference on the topic, in which Shostakovich had participated. Shostakovich started writing his Fourth Symphony with great hopes because its concept, language and dimensions were revolutionary—and huge—for the Russian symphony.
It would be easy to oversimplify the situation by reducing it to Stalin and his cultural advisors sending down instructions that the creative workers were to execute. The entire country was going through an immemse social upheaval which changed public consciousness and perception while also creating a new audience. Colossal artistic problems arose, with no suggestions on solving them. In this situation, each artist was attempting to find his or her own answers and artistic voice, just as Shostakovich was trying to do in the Fourth Symphony.
While the second movement is a ländler-like scherzo cast in a deceptively simple A-B-A-B-A form. This eerie scherzo, at times reminiscent of the scherzi from Mahler's Second and Seventh symphonies, the third and final movement begins with the most Mahlerian music Shostakovich would write—a funeral march in C minor reminiscent of the first two movements of Mahler's Fifth Symphony and the orchestral interlude to the final song in Das Lied von der Erde. This march becomes the dominant motif of the movement—perhaps appropriate since Shostakovich began this movement after the Pravda articles appeared.
At the end of the finale, Shostakovich inserts two telling quotes. The first is from the opening of Act 2 of Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. This work was well known to Shostakovich as well as his fellow Leningrad musicians. The Latin text for the musical passage he quotes is, "Gloria! Laudibus regina Iocasta in pestilentibus Thebis." This passage translates in English to, "Glory! We hail Queen Jocasta in pestilent Thebes." In other words, Shostakovich was drawing a parallel between Stalinist Russia and the plague-ridden city of Greek tragedy. This quote also draws an indiret inference to Alexander Pushkin's short play, Pir vo vremya chumy (Пир во время чумы); the title of which translates in English as A Feast During the Plague.
The second quotation is also from Stravinsky, this time from the finale of The Firebird. The last moments of Stravinsky's ballet are filled with relief and triumph over the death of Kashchei the Immortal, the evil sorcerer and ruler of the Rotten Kingdom. By quoting from this music, Volkov claims, Shostakovkch was incanting, "Die, Kaschei-Stalin! Die! Be gone, Rotten Kingdom!" This could be considered the first time Shostakovich pens a musical characterization of Stalin, a practice he would practice much more fully in the Tenth Symphony.
Recordings of the work include:
The last two recordings also include performances of the surviving original drafts of the Fourth Symphony's first movement.