Shostakovich Symphony No. 4

December 21, 2010
By Anonymous

Classical music has taken over my life. Not a day of the week goes by without some sort of required activity involving classical music. I think that this exposure has been rubbing off on my personal life, since if you look on my iPod, you'll find more Chopin than Taylor Swift. You can then imagine that when my dad told me he had two box seat tickets to see the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center, I was absolutely ecstatic.

There was, however, a minor detail. My father didn’t tell me, nor did I ask, what was being performed, until it was too late. When I did ask, he did not know, so I logged on to the Kimmel Center website and began scrolling through the different performance dates. My eyes lit up as I saw names like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Holst, and I became more excited about the performance. Then, I reached the date of our concert. My heart sank.

Shostakovich, Symphony #4. I immediately recalled that my music teacher hates Shostakovich’s compositions, but I pulled up a recording of this mystery piece anyway hoping that my music teacher and I had a difference of opinion. As the xylophone rang out to announce the beginning, quickly followed by a muddled horn reply, I had to turn it off and my enthusiasm for this excursion faded. This composition was complete and utter atonal chaos. My first trip to the Kimmel Center was going to be an absolute horror.
Eventually, the day of the concert came and while the novelty of this trip did restore some of my initial excitement, Shostakovich remained a dark cloud hanging over the whole event. On the other hand, I did not want to spoil this father-daughter outing, so I didn't let my aversion toward the music show. We arrived at the Kimmel Center early, so while waiting for the doors to open, I read the playbill cover to cover. I paid special attention to the section about the dreaded symphony, about which I learned many things in that small span of time. First, the symphony was over an hour long. I also read that it was "bold." I’ve gathered that in the musical world, this is a way of saying that it does not fit the usual definition of "melodic." I think that in the regular world, this means it is just weird. Even Josef Stalin walked out of a performance of one of Shostakovich's earlier works, which he criticized as being "Muddle instead of Music.” When I read this I very nearly suggested to my Dad that we just leave the Kimmel and get cheese steaks in South Philadelphia. Instead, I held a carefully neutral expression as my Dad and I entered the hall.

An hour and a half later, we emerged. I wish I could say that I suddenly had a revelation in hearing it live which magically changed my opinion, but honestly I still disliked the symphony. While the classical music I love has clear themes and strong melodies, I have absolutely no idea what Shostakovich meant to do. On the other hand, sitting through that marathon of a piece allowed me to appreciate what Shostakovich did. I may have hated the dissonances themselves, but the way that each instrument in the orchestra passed the moving line from one to another was interesting to follow from one side of the concert hall to the other. The bombastic chords played by the massive orchestra in full punctuated a playful dance between horns and winds. I then recalled the playbill and the history which served as the context for this composition and I could imagine the struggle of the citizens of the Soviet Union as they faced an uncertain future under the fierce rule of Josef Stalin.

On the way home, my Dad and I discussed the hour long musical epic. I did not think it was the type of thing he would like. He did not like it, but he reflected on how the music sounded inside the concert hall and how he was impressed with the way the music felt in the floor and in the seats. For him, being there with the performers made all the difference. The quality of their presentation, the beauty of the space, and the historical background took music that I know we both hated and elevated it to an experience we could both admire. As we got closer to home, I decided that this ‘horror’ and ‘chaos’ was only considered so because of my preconceived and limiting notions of good music. While remaining completely out of my area of interest, and certainly not on any of my playlists, I learned to give Shostakovich my appreciation and respect.

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