Shostakovich, born in 1906 in St. Petersburg, managed an illustrious career over six decades, enduring Soviet-era and Stalinist denunciations, to create an extensive body of work in most genres, including 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets. Ratmansky, ABT's Artist in Residence, has choreographed seven ballets to scores by Shostakovich that reveal a special affinity with the composer's music. And now, his boldest undertaking, a trilogy: two symphonies and a chamber symphony: that is complemented by striking set designs of George Tsypin. Costumes by Keso Dekker, the Dutch-born visual artist, complete the d_cor.
The three works are from turning points in Shostakovich's career: Symphony No. 1 in F major, Op. 10, was finished in December 1925, the remarkable achievement of a nineteen year- old modernist, which brought international prominence; Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70, completed in 1945, after the historic siege of Leningrad at the end of the Second World War; and the Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, an arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of Shostakovich's powerful String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110, written in 1960, a work with autobiographical resonance.
Shostakovich wrote the First Symphony as a graduation requirement for his teacher Maximilian Steinberg's composition class at the Leningrad Conservatory. Its premiere by the Leningrad Philharmonic led by Nikolai Malko in May 1926 met with resounding success (the scherzo movement had to be repeated). Early the following year, the young composer, also a gifted pianist, played the piano transcription of his symphony for the eminent conductor Bruno Walter. Walter gave the first foreign performance in Berlin on February 6, 1928, leading no less an ensemble than the Berlin Philharmonic. It was a signal moment. In November of that year, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra would introduce the work in the United States. Even as Shostakovich fell out of favor with Stalin's regime because of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and The Bright Stream: the 1935 comic Soviet ballet, set on a collective farm, brilliantly recreated by Ratmansky for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2003 and first performed by ABT in 2011: the symphony's stature grew: the Cleveland Orchestra, led by Artur Rodzinski, took it up in 1941, followed in March 1944 by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony.
Ratmansky feels a particular connection to Shostakovich's music. The choreographer says, "He was the first composer I discovered on my own. I have loved the symphonies, in particular, numbers 1, 6, and 9, since I was a child. They are suited to ballet because they are shorter and a bit lighter than some of the other symphonies: and they are also theatrical, dramatic." Yet Ratmansky, along with ABT 's music director Ormsby Wilkins felt the Sixth did not provide sufficient contrast within the context of a full evening. Wilkins suggested the Chamber Symphony and the question of the music for the ballet was settled.
The range of Shostakovich's music elicits choreography of deep emotional resonance in Ratmansky's ballets. "His music is very rich in the way it reflects upon life and the human condition. For me, he continues a musical line from Tchaikovsky, in a distinct way, in very different times _and Mahler, also," says the choreographer. Indeed, Mahler. Throughout the First Symphony, it is impossible not to hear the influence of the Austrian composer: in spare, two-part counterpoint and clashes in mood between pathos and the sardonic, even the grotesque. Alluring, too, is the brilliant, virtuoso writing for the clarinet, flute, and piccolo, trumpet, and piano, that recalls Stravinsky and the pungent harmonies of Prokofiev.
Yevgeny Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic in the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, in a program paired with Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, on November 20, 1945. Although Shostakovich had initially planned a work of larger scale and scope, seemingly as a capstone to the two previous, wartime symphonies, he evidently abandoned the idea. Critics rightly perceived a link to music of chamber orchestra dimension. The piece, though in five movements, is concise. Shostakovich described it thus: "In character, the Ninth Symphony differs sharply from my preceding symphonies, the Seventh and the Eighth. If the Seventh and the Eighth symphonies bore a tragic-heroic character, then in the Ninth a transparent, pellucid, and bright mood predominates."
But the symphony would prove a downfall. As a result of the artistic purges led by Andrey Zhadnov, Stalin's ideological henchman after the war, the symphony was deemed representative of pernicious cultural tendencies, embodying "formalism alien to Soviet art" and an indulgent individualism that ran counter to the State. Along with Shostakovich's Sixth and Eighth symphonies, Piano Concerto, the Ninth Symphony was banned from performance. Eventually, the composer was stripped of his professorships at the conservatories in Leningrad and Moscow.
Shostakovich wrote his Eighth Quartet (Chamber Symphony) over three days in July 1960, during a visit to Dresden, where he was moved deeply by its ruined post-war state. A chromatic motive of four pitches, D, E-flat, C, and B, which forms the monogram of the composer's name in German notation: D, S (Es), C, H for D-imitri S-C-H-ostakovich, permeates its five, contrasting movements, along with thematic references to some of his works, including the First Symphony. The mood is desolate, the musical expression searing. In a letter to his friend Isaak Glikman after his return to Moscow, Shostakovich wrote, "I reflected that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself. The title page could carry the dedication: 'To the memory of the composer of this quartet.'" The quartet would bear the formal inscription "in memory of the victims of war and fascism," a dedication which could be understood as encompassing casualties of all repressive regimes.
In 2009, Alexei Ratmansky was named Artist in Residence at ABT. "By now, I feel that I am really a part of the Company. We speak the same language," says the choreographer. It isn't lost on him that this trio of works, which he is creating as a portrait of ABT's dancers, whose spirit he describes warmly as "very American," is by a composer who endured totalitarian rule. Ratmansky adds, "He was a survivor, who wore masks to create and live. I believe there is universality in Shostakovich's music. Everyone goes through different circumstances in life, has hopes, feel oppressed, even sardonic. For the dancers, work on the ballets makes for a beautiful experience, surrounded by music of this caliber for days, then weeks, and months. It elevates the spirit."
Mario R. Mercado is arts editor of Travel + Leisure magazine.