Dmitri Shostakovich

Symphony No. 9

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 25–30 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
Time of Creation: 1944–1945
World Premiere: November 03, 1945 (Moscow)

Table of Contents

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 in 5 Sentences

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 is what I call an “Anti-Ninth.” In order to understand that, you have to know two things: First, since Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, there has been pressure on all composers to create something very special with their respective ninth symphonies. Second, the Soviet Union had triumphed over Hitler’s Germany in May 1945, so the Soviet regime expected Shostakovich to write a victory symphony. But Shostakovich wrote an “Anti-Ninth” that is unusually short, dripping with sarcasm, and ends with a circus march instead of a triumphal march.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9

Highlight 1: Banality in the first movement

Shostakovich chose the key of E-flat major for his Symphony No. 9. A clever choice, because on the one hand E-flat major stands for personality cult since Beethoven’s 3rd symphony (with Beethoven around Napoleon, with Shostakovich around Stalin), on the other hand, the key of Beethoven’s heroic 9th Symphony (D minor), which the Soviet regime would have liked to see as a model for Shostakovich’s composition, is missed by a semitone 😉In addition, Shostakovich makes the first movement formally emphatically strict and melodically downright obtuse:

Highlight 2: Lively scherzo

Things only get lively in the third movement, the Scherzo:

Highlight 3: Fourth movement and transition to the fifth movement

There is a tremendous bassoon solo in the fourth movement. The transition to the fifth movement is truly remarkable: it almost seems as if the bassoon “slips” from the serious, somber mood into a merry circus mood (19:30):

Highlight 4: Circus March

This circus mood then gets wilder and wilder until the end. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 ends with a completely exaggerated circus march:

3 Questions and Answers about Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9

Question 1: Did Shostakovich's "Anti-Ninth" have consequences for the composer?

Yes. The Soviet regime was anything but enthusiastic about Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. Shostakovich was ostracized or even politically persecuted from the time of its premiere.

Question 2: How was the work received at the premiere?

The premiere audience was perplexed. Everyone had expected a heroic, grand symphony – which is what the work had been announced as. But then this playful, partly grotesque symphony was played – audience, critics and regime were disappointed.

Question 3: How did Shostakovich's composing continue?

After the Ninth Symphony, Shostakovich did not compose any new works for a long time. Only after Stalin’s death did he resume composing.

2 Recommended Recordings of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9

Recording 1: WDR Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (live, 2017)

This recording of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony is very well done, especially thanks to the excellent wind soloists of the WDR Symphony Orchestra:

Recording 2: Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (live, 2019)

At this point I would like to mention a recording by an up-and-coming orchestra in Asia: The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra has undergone remarkable development under principal conductor Jaap van Zweden:

1 Quote about Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9

Loud, three forte played fortississimo and that's how it ends, the symphony, (...) Stalin was mocked, fortunately Stalin didn't understand, fortunately.

Shostakovich's student Rudolf Barschai about Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony

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