Life Chronicles

The First Symphony's premiere was held on 12 May 1926 in the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic performed by the philharmonic orchestra and conducted by Nikolai Andreyevich Malko.

May 12th - First performance of Symphony No. 1 (op. 10) Triumph.
First Publication of Shostakovich’s works “Three Fantastic Dances” (op. 5).
December 2nd — First Performance of Piano Sonata No. 1 (op. 12). Piano part played by the author.

“On New Year’s Night I had a strange dream... I was walking through the desert and suddenly an old man dressed in white was coming towards me and said: ’This year will be a lucky one for you...’ I woke up with a feeling of great happiness.”

“The symphony was a tremendous success yesterday. The performance was superb. A real triumph. I had to take five curtain calls. It sounded wonderful.”

“Then there is another horrible, disturbing matter ... the influence of many of his fellow-musicians, who have undermined his confidence in me and wiped out my authority for him... You cannot believe how difficult it is to guide a young man without a father...”

January 1, 1926, Leningrad

“On New Year’s Night I had a strange dream, which inspite of my total disbelief in dreams, nevertheless moved me a little. The dream was rather sad, but I shall still describe it to you. I was walking through the desert and suddenly an old man dressed in white was coming towards me and said: ’This year will be a lucky one for you’. After that I woke up with a feeling of great happiness. The joy was so powerful that I could not fall asleep again till the morning. I was just lying there although I had gone to bed at three o’clock in the morning. How nice it was!
Then I recalled Chekhov’s story “The Black Monk” and remembered that Kovrin was in such a state of overwhelming happiness that he did not know how to escape from it. Oh, how wonderful it was. I have great hopes for the New Year. First of all I shall complete the Second Symphony, which I started two days ago. I know that this symphony will be written and completed. These are not going to be fruitless attempts at composition, which were plaguing me in the recent past. Then I thought that I might be able to write a few bars and perhaps get a feeling that the symphony would be a success, that I would know how many parts there would be and what kind. This happened just a few days ago. Now I can hear the whole symphony in my head. I can hear it all. That means that the symphony already exists. The problem is just one of time. <...> I am happy and content. The tortures of composition give me no rest, but I shall be happy to be tortured with this kind of pain for the rest of my days. The weather here is really spring-like. The tom-cats think that it is already March and they run up onto the roof and come back down again looking rather embarrassed. Everything is unexpectedly happy.”

February 19, 1926
S. Shostakovich:

“It is very difficult for me to accept that I cannot earn enough for Mitya not to have to work and get on with what means most to him. I’m always so worried about his health. We still do not have a piano. I am slowly losing hope that we will be ever given one...”

March 12, 1926, Leningrad

“After the time I spent pleasantly in Moscow, the return to my ‘Picadilly’ was a very sad day for me. You can scold me if you like, or not ,as the case may be, but a few days after my return I handed in my resignation. Now I am as free as a bird. During this time three things have made a very strong impression on me. It cost me tremendous effort, but I have found four violins, two violas and two cello players. I have been able to try an octet. Both pieces ... the Prelude and the Scherzo ... sound exceptionally good. For a few days I walked around crazy with delight. Now I’ve cooled off a bit. The second impression was a very negative one from Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica. What rubbish it is. I’m lost for words. Strauss tells us how he drinks beer, how he takes off his long pants before going to bed, how he caresses his fat wife, how he snores, how he gets dressed in the morning, thrashes his children and so on. I could hardly sit through it. I couldn’t help noticing that the audience was listening to the symphony very attentively and with great pleasure. Probably everybody thought: ‘That’s all about me. I, too, take off my trousers before going to bed and cover myself with a blanket. I, too, eat sausages and smoke cigars (or cheap tobacco)’. It was a tremendous success. <...> The third deep impression, no less emotional than the other two occurred yesterday at the circus. One of the animal-tamers was in a cage with twelve (!) huge Bengali tigers. The tigers were roaring fiercely, throwing themselves at the tamer, but he was building pyramids out of them: he made them jump through burning hoops and roll balls. All this was going with the tigers roaring furiously. I was shaking, moaning, biting my fingers covered in a cold sweat one minute and parched the next. I wanted to leave and so on <...> The whole night I was dreaming about tigers. <...> It would be very nice if these tigers would stay on for a bit longer in Leningrad. I’ll go and see them again two or three times. If these tigers go on tour to Moscow, you must go and see them.”

May 13, 1926, Leningrad

“The symphony was very well received. The performance was superb. A grand success. I took five curtain calls. Everything sounded marvellous. The first violin playing solo was a bit out of tune, but the overall tone was right. The cellist, on the contrary, played in tune but adopted, as one says, the wrong tone. I am so glad, I am lost for words. I myself derived real pleasure from the performance and this already says a lot. I’m a very demanding and fussy author. If something is not right, it feels like being pricked by a pin. That’s how unpleasant I find it. Yesterday though everything went astonishingly well. Elation, a wonderful performance, success and terrible anxiety on the even of the concert had drained me and made my head spin. Don’t misunderstand the ‘spinning head’. It is spinning but for the right reasons. I’m terribly happy.”

May 1926
S. Shostakovich:

“I shall try and describe to you our agitation in connection with the performance of Mitya’s symphony. We had been waiting for this event the whole winter. Mitya was counting the days and the hours. The day of the concert came. Mitya hadn’t slept all night. At half-past eight we arrived at the Philharmonia. By nine o’clock the hall was full. I can’t describe what I felt, when I saw the conductor Nikolai Malko ready to raise his baton. All I can say is that sometimes it is difficult even to live through a great happiness... Everything went splendidly ... a superb orchestra, a wonderful performance. But the greatest share of the success was Mitya’s. At the end of the symphony Mitya was called on to the stage again and again. When our youthful composer, who looked a mere boy, appeared on stage, the ecstatic applause of the public turned into an ovation...”

Nikolai Malko:

“I have the feeling that I have opened a new page in the history of symphonic music, have discovered a major new composer.”
(Notes made on the night after the premiere of the Symphony. Quotation from : “Composers ... Lenin Prize holders” “Znanie”, Moscow, 1971, p.33).
“If I manage even in the slightest to support myself, I shall work tirelessly in the field of music, to which I shall devote my whole life.”

Nikolai Malko:

“...I am now starting a programme with an unknown symphony by an unknown composer. <...> Its enormous success (we even had to repeat the second part) I explain - not by the fact that the composer is a boy, but by the fact that this boy bears endless possibilities for musical creativity within him. These are fanned by his lively and cheerful temperament, his energetic, strong and generous spirit, his sensitive gift for using the orchestra ranging from a quiet ‘chamber’ sound to a mighty torrent and by his God-given potential known as talent.”

July 6, 1926, Kharkov

“The local orchestra messed up my Symphony so badly... You can’t imagine anything worse...
During the first part dogs arranged their own concert and accompanied it from start to finish with friendly, lively barking... Now I am very upset. I feel as if ten louts have just raped my beloved in front of me. Tied to a tree, I was listening to her groans, entreaties and screams for help and suffered all the while. Life is full of all kinds of unpleasantness ... rapes, poor performances and all sorts.
Malko did everything he could, but one soldier does not make an army. After all, what could Malko do, when apart from him there are 54 blockheads on the rampage who are playing out of tune, out of time, blurring the notes, are unable to vary the volume etc. ...not very nice. Not nice at all. To hell with them. I will be paid my author’s fees for the symphony and on the 12th I shall be playing at a Tchaikovsky symphony concert. I’ll be paid for that as well. I am not very used yet to musical prostitution, but slowly I’m learning...”

“This performance showed us what a splendid pianist the young musician is. Not only his technique is impressive, but his sense of rhythm, style and verve are even more so. The Tchaikovsky Concerto was really inspiring.”

“Today in the Park of the Business Club there will be a concert of chamber music, at which the young composer and virtuoso pianist, D. Shostakovich will appear...”

July 29, 1926, Anapa

“I don’t want to leave here at all, but I have to be back in Leningrad by August 15th. Those born in 1926 have to undergo preparatory training before being drafted. It’s very unpleasant. I hate the parade ground with all my heart. <...> It is so hot here that I cannot start work on my Piano Concerto. On top of all that I haven’t even got an instrument. Some friends have got one though, but it is atrocious. More like a frying pan, than a piano. I can’t write any more. I’m dead and my eyes hurt in the candle-light. For you though with electricity it is easy to write, so I beg you to write to me.”

September 23, 1926, Leningrad

“My Sonata had been progressing all this time very quickly, but the last two days I haven’t added anything. I have to get out of this impasse. Professor M. Shteinberg has shown some interest in my sonata. Yesterday he called me round to see him. I showed it to him. To start with, he asked me not to be angry with him and said that he didn’t like it. I wasn’t angry. Then he to began to analyse the sonata and was glad and even surprised that I ... sitting in the other corner of the room -- noticed mistakes and told him about them. ‘That means that you hear what you wrote. That means that you composed the music and did not invent it, but... unfortunately I don’t like this music.’
<...> I respect Shteinberg. He hasn’t killed anyone or stolen anything. He deserves my respect.”

Autumn 1926, Leningrad

“...I feel wonderful, if it were not for that black thread (I told you about it) which runs through my whole being. Yet if my Muse visits me more often, then things won’t be so bad. If you only knew, how awful I feel, when the Muse deserts me. After my death I shall have a talk about this black thread with God (if he exists). If I shall still have a physical body and he too (forgive me for this Igorglebov turn of phrase) [Igor Glebov was the pseudonym used by B.Asafiev: Ed], then I shall spit into his beard!”

September 27, 1926, Leningrad

“I utterly agree with you that such a thing as coming closer by a year to one’s death is not a cause for celebration. Yet inspite of this September 25th of each year will be singled out in some way or another, because after all September 12th Old Style of 1906 had a part to play in my life and therefore it needs to be remembered <...> This very moment an idea has come to me for the continuation of my Sonata. This evening, when everyone will be going to bed, I shall take it further. It’s not worth doing it now, because the primus is hissing in the kitchen, the piano has been taken over by Marusya’s pupils and there are other noises of the working day. I cannot say that I feel well. Some kind of nervous illness has appeared: for example, I’ll be drinking tea and my hand, with no warning goes out of control and spills tea onto the tablecloth. Sad incidents like this have happened twice at home and once when I was visiting someone. I received many presents on my birthday. <...> It was very noisy and merry. We were up until four o’clock in the morning: we danced, made a noise, played and so on.”

October 21, 1926, Leningrad

“Yesterday at 2:13 I wrote the last bar of the Sonata. Wrote is the operative word. I consider a work completed only when I have got it down on paper. I myself am happy with it. I haven’t shown it to any authoritative musicians yet. <...> Yesterday I really enjoyed myself at a concert in the Philharmonia. I listened to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, to his Violin Concerto, to a violin concerto by K*enek and a Concerto for Orchestra by Hindemith. I was quite dizzy after all that.
Hindemith is a real genius. His concerto is something out of this world. I still can’t get over it. Shtidri was conducting. <...> I am still under the spell of yesterday’s concert. In general the season at the Phlharmonia has been a great success. The concerts are marvellous. The attendance is also very good. Each concert turns into a special occasion. I am very very happy with it all. Shtidri is a fine fellow ... he conducts splendidly. <...> I have just finished my Sonata and I’m already thinking about a Piano Concerto. What will come of it?”

December 11, 1926, Leningrad

“Today I received a note from the Conservatoire saying that the exam for post-graduates in the Holy Scriptures (crossed out by D.S) Marxist Methodology will take place on December 21st of this year which fills me with horror, because I am almost sure that I won’t pass it. After I fail the exam I shall have three disasters to cope with: (1) disgrace; (2) my post-graduate grant will vanish and (3) political unreliability... My mood is very low ...
All in all life is bleak, futile and useless. I want to compose, but I haven’t got the time...(sic!).”

December 20, 1926
S. Shostakovich:

“I want to write you a few words concerning Mitya’s possible trip to Warsaw to participate in the Chopin Competition. <...> Mitya himself is passionately keen to go there, to win new impressions, but is worried that there is too little time left to prepare for it. Nor does he have a lot of Chopin in his repertoire. He is preparing for it hard. There’s no need for me to tell you that any happiness for him is of course a great happiness for me as well. I shall be very glad if everything turns out as he would want.
<...> At the moment he is overloaded with all kinds of work. He has lost weight, is pale and is not sleeping well. His nerves are also on edge. <...> What’s more there is another constant worry that plagues me-- the influence of many of his colleagues who have undermined his trust in me and my authority... Forgive me for writing to you about this, but you can’t believe how difficult it is to guide
an adult son, even such a wonderful and irreproachable one, as my Mitya, when there is no father. How my heart is breaking with all this anxiety and concern about his weak health. This is why I clutch so tightly at your authority as a friend. Apart from me there is no-one to take care of him and, of course, I am the only one to whom he is so infinitely precious.”

December 24, 1926, Leningrad

“I have just returned home from an exam in Marxist Methodology.
<...> They started with Shmidt. They asked him: ‘What is the difference from an economic and sociological point of view between the work of Chopin and Liszt?’ Shmidt started to answer: ’Chopin was a lyric. His work was expressed through melancholy.’ When he said that Kamensky and I fell about laughing. We laughed so hysterically that we couldn’t calm down again. The exam committee interpreted this laughter as a lack of respect for them... Then some elegant Marxist asked me: ’Have you read Plekhanov’s book on art?’ ... ‘No.’ ... ‘Have you read Lunacharsky’s book on music?’ ... ‘No.’ ... ‘Have you read ...? ... ‘No. No.’. ‘In this case we are not even going to examine you’. Then the same elegant Marxist turned to the committee saying: ’If I were to ask him a question about the sociological basis for Bach’s tempered arrangements and Scriabin’s timbre conglomerates, he will certainly not know the answer.’... ‘That’s a fact...he won’t’, said the committee...
I want to go to Warsaw very badly. I am very tired.”