28 February 2014
Tonal Center Contributions to Narrative in Shostakovich and Mahler Symphonies
Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony stands as a remarkable piece by the Soviet composer
due to its musical content. While the symphony’s formal eccentricity and theatrical language drive the narrative of the piece, scholars tend to project convenient historical context onto the symphony’s meaning instead. Primarily, it is held that the Fourth Symphony is a narrative for the events surrounding Shostakovich’s ﬁrst public denouncement. The pressures of the Soviet government at this time may or may not have been the composer’s primary motivation for withdrawing the piece from its premiere. Though it is a logical assumption that this was a motivating force, there is no entirely reliable source that can say this was the reason for the symphony’s withdrawal.
During the time of the Fourth Symphony’s composition, Shostakovich’s contemporaries
were failing to create symphonies without using content from texts, subtitles, programs, and musical imagery. Essentially, the emerging music of that time was programmatic music with obvious narrative qualities. Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is, as a result, seen as a rise to the challenge for innovative symphonic language. The question then becomes, does absolute music still hold narrative function? Arguably, the sequence of events in a composition invites comparison to the unfolding of narrative plot. Patterns like sonata form resemble a story, and instances in which music deviates from what is expected function like an element of surprise within a narrative context. Therefore, musical narrative is immanent as long as the listener
produces some expectation for what situation will occur next. Shostakovich imparts this broadstroked narrative quality to the Fourth Symphony by using contrasting tonal centers, each associated with particular styles and musical topics. The composer’s use of differing pitch areas to create narrative is inspired by Mahler, whose Fourth Symphony will also be discussed.
Shostakovich establishes the role of opposing tonal centers in the ﬁrst movement of the
symphony. The movement begins with a theatrical and grotesque ﬁve bar introduction with a sharp woodwind and xylophone theme. The introduction then plunges into a militaristic march, establishing the tonal center of C. The use of a march as the ﬁrst theme in a symphony is rather Figure 1: Opening of first movement
unusual, and Shostakovich uses the ﬁrst subject group’s coarse, aggressive tone to characterize this particular tonal center. From the start of the symphony, the listener’s expectations are already challenged as the symphony opens with a popular march style not in celebration of popular music but as a critical device. Later in the movement, the second subject group is introduced around the tonal center of A with a bassoon solo at Rehearsal 31. The initial bassoon statement is Figure 2: Rehearsal 31, Bassoon Solo
a soloistic presentation in the style of a sustained recitative. In Shostakovich’s works, the
bassoon has critical function as a melancholic or sarcastic voice, ultimately giving a voice to the personal sphere. The solo line is meandering, lacking recitative rhythms, and dynamically shapeless, giving an overall tone of numbness. Though the listener expects a waltz, the solo line is too metrically ambiguous. As the second subject group progresses, a more substantial waltz character is developed, featuring a puppet waltz at Rehearsal 37 and a ghost-like waltz at Rehearsal 38. While the anticipated waltz motif has arrived, it sounds distinctly unreal and estranged, all characteristics of Shostakovich’s tonal center of A in this symphony. In general, the tonal center of C contains strong, aggressive, and caustic themes with relatively clear harmonic...
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