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Sour Success


With the acclaimed debut of his First Symphony just a few weeks behind him, Dmitri Shostakovich was in for a different experience when it played elsewhere. On July 6, 1926, the nineteen-year-old composer wrote from Ukraine to his mother in Leningrad about a performance by an orchestra in Kharkov.

The concert took place in a garden. As the conductor prepared to start, some nearby dogs began barking. The longer he waited, the louder they barked, much to the merriment of the audience. When the symphony finally got underway, the trumpeter botched his opening phrase and the bassoonist chimed in with a jumble of wrong notes. The dogs came back in and added their voices throughout the rest of the first movement. The outdoor acoustics made the strings thin, the piano inaudible, and the timpani overpowering.

At the beginning of the second movement, the carefully rehearsed cellos and double basses came to grief, and the clarinets started playing out of tempo. In order to get everyone back together, the conductor gave up on the dynamics. The bassoonist returned, playing in a way that caused Shostakovich “dire distress.”

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The middle of the movement dragged into a muddled confusion. It was all Shostakovich could do to keep from bursting into tears. The piano sounded like a toy harpsichord, one that was out of tune.

Nonetheless, at the end of the second movement, the audience applauded.

Despite percussion that overpowered everything else, the third and fourth movements went much better.

At last it was over. From the front row, a reluctant Shostakovich bowed to the clamoring crowd.

At their insistence, he climbed onstage and bowed again.

The audience was clapping out of habit, Shostakovich deduced, but at least they weren’t booing. The conductor declared the performance a success and complimented the orchestra.

For Shostakovich, the words struck a sour note because he felt that the orchestra had spattered his symphony with dirt.