The symphony is also commonly subtitled `A Soviet artist's reply to just criticism'. This was not Shostakovich's own subtitling, but apparently suggested by a journalist. In any case, it is a clear response to the stinging attack made on Shostakovich (and in particular on his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk) in January 1936 in Pravda. The article was not signed, but it seems that the attack was written on Stalin's direct authority.
Shostakovich's fourth symphony was withdrawn from rehearsal soon afterwards. Given this hostile climate, it is not surprising that Shostakovich should put such a contrite face on his work. One should not necessarily assume that these were his real feelings, and in the account of Volkov's Testimony, Shostakovich claims that this work (like many others) is in reality a criticism of the Communist system.
The symphony has four movements:
The first movement started out patchily somehow; I wasn't really engaged by it. But then the rather ferocious part of it (I realise these terms are a trifle vague) began, and I was gripped by its real power. It may sound exaggerated, but I could feel my whole body sort of buzz to the thrill of it.
In the second movement, I could really hear the humour of the music. The music rolled along, and seemed quite cheery, though the solo violin didn't sound quite so convinced at the start of the movement. Its plaintive voice was overtaken by the rest of the orchestra as the movement developed, and all was happiness and light.
The third movement was best of all. It was unbelievably tense throughout, and though the movement does eventually come to a resolution of sorts, I could tell that this was just postponing the moment when the true savagery was to be unleashed. The dialogues between the various non-bowed instruments were very well done. The harp's moments were particularly good.Then it all came to a crashing finale in the fourth movement. As I said, the tympanist was too loud, but I appreciated the menace I could hear in the supposedly triumphal and optimistic music. All in all, it was a great experience.
The humour is still there, but in a more muted fashion. Instead I hear something that wavers between melancholy and the somewhat brash intrusion of the "humour". This seems very similar to what happens (though more obviously) in the second movement of the seventh symphony.