Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony

Dimitri Shostakovich
Dimitri Shostakovich

It’s impossible to separate the music of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) from the horrors and repression of Soviet life under Stalin. In a brutal society glued together by coercive thought control, constant fear, and the execution of between eight and 20 million people, art had the capacity to articulate truths otherwise unspeakable. This made Shostakovich’s music dangerous, as this quote by the composer suggests:

[quote]Music illuminates a person and provides him with his last hope; even Stalin, a butcher, knew that.[/quote]

Shostakovich’s relationship with Stalin was complex and has been the subject of debate. Amazingly, in spite of constant state censorship, the spirit of darkness permeating the music is evident, often in the form of irony. For example, the final movement of the famous Fifth Symphony concludes with seemingly triumphant and celebratory fanfares in the heroic key of D major. Many conductors have taken this music at a fast clip-about 188 eighth notes per minute. But there is speculation that Shostakovich actually intended it to go much slower. Listen to contrasting tempos of this ending here. You’ll notice that in the slower tempo the music sounds empty and hollow, providing only a veneer of celebration.

There are questions about the accuracy of Shostakovich’s memoirs, published by Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov. Still, this quote from the book regarding the ending of the Fifth Symphony is interesting to consider:

[quote]The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing”[/quote]

Called upon to commemorate the Russian victory over Nazi Germany with his Ninth Symphony, Shostakovich delivered music which was light and frivolous. It was quickly censored by Soviet authorities.

Premiering on December 17, 1953, Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 was Shostakovich’s first symphony following Stalin’s death. Some listeners hear the darkness and terror of the Stalin years fully expressed for the first time in this work.

Let’s listen to a live 2009 performance of the Tenth Symphony by Mariss Jansons and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. As you listen, consider the atmosphere the music evokes. How do harmonies elicit emotion? Do the sounds of the instruments suggest distinct personas? The first movement grows out of the eerily quiet depths of the low strings. What happens as the music develops?

  1. Moderato (0:00)
  2. Allegro (20:05)
  3. Allegretto (27:42)
  4. Andante-Allegro (40:18)

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Let’s go back and listen one more time. From the opening of the first movement, you probably sensed something frightening, maybe even menacing…a sense of dread and foreboding. We’ve all had the experience of fixating on something we find disturbing and experiencing an almost physical reaction. The more we think about it, the more anxious and worked up we get. For me, this first movement unfolds in a similar way. Slowly, in stages it gets increasingly wound up, along the way capturing a sea of indescribable and complex emotions (2:17, then 3:20, then 4:11).

At 5:55 a grotesque waltz begins. Notice the way beats are accentuated in unpredictable ways. It’s anything but graceful. This isn’t Swan Lake.

By the time we reach the development section in the middle of the movement, we’re at a completely new level of anxiety, which continues to grow. Notice the way the woodwinds scream out at top volume in the most shrill, high register around 10:41 The motive from the opening bars of the symphony is repeated obsessively (in the low brass at 10:19 and 13:58). A sense of struggle is written into the music. Following 12:14, listen to the way the strings fight against the brass, desperately grasping at a series of notes which lead nowhere. Except for a brief ray of light (20:52), the movement ends as it began.

The second movement provides another view of terror. As you listen, consider how the music is flowing. Are we moving towards a goal or just rigidly marching forward towards an increasingly frightening abyss?

In the third movement we hear the famous DSCH motive (29:06 and 35:29), which Shostakovich used in many pieces, including the ferocious String Quartet No. 8. In German these pitches, (D, E-flat, C, B), are abbreviated initials for “Dmitry Shostakovich.” With the obsessive repetition of this musical cryptogram, Shostakovich may be suggesting that the spirit of the individual cannot be crushed. The solo horn motive, which is repeated throughout the movement, represents the initials of one of Shostakovich’s female students, Elmira Nazirova (E-A-E-D-A). In the final bars the two motives are heard together.

In the final movement Shostakovich gives us an almost silly and slightly sarcastic theme (44:59). We hear hints of this theme gradually taking shape in the preceding Andante (44:19). Notice the return of the DSCH motive (49:27, 52:13, 52:53). Consider how the ending of the final movement relates to the what came before. Why do you think Shostakovich chose this type of ending?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Now it’s your turn…[/typography]

I’ve offered a few of my thoughts regarding the music. Now go back, listen again and come back with your own ideas. Is there a particular moment in the music which speaks to you in an especially strong way? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.

Late Beethoven Revelations

Takacs Beethoven QuartetsThe greatest composers serve as visionaries and prophets, giving us a glimpse at a higher reality. Looking back through music history, many composers seem to have experienced a sharpening of this sense of vision in the final years of life. The Ninth and final symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner are filled with mystery, foreboding and spirituality. The first movement of Bruckner’s Ninth is marked “Feierlich (Solemn) and ” misterioso.” Schubert’s Ninth Symphony“The Great”, is a sublime Romantic statement which, in scale, eclipses all of his previous classical symphonies. In his book, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, Stephen Nachmanovitch writes about late Mozart:

[quote]In creative work we play undisguisedly with the fleetingness of our life, with some awareness of our own death. Listen to Mozart’s later music-you hear all its lightness, energy, transparency, and good humor, yet you also hear the breath of ghosts blowing through it. Death and life came to be that close for him. It was the completeness and intensity with which both primal forces met and fused in him, and his freedom to play with those forces, that mad Mozart the supreme artist he was.[/quote]

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its use of chorus and solo voices, redefined the symphony and set a monumental and intimidating example for composers who followed.

Equally interesting is the music Beethoven wrote after the Ninth Symphony: the Late String Quartets (Op. 127-135) which remain some of the most mysterious and profound music ever conceived. This music is so far out that, at times, you might swear that you’re listening to something from the twentieth century. Let’s listen to the Takacs Quartet performing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132:

1. Assai sostenuto- Allegro:

2. Allegro ma non tanto:

3. Molto Adagio– Andante – Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart. Molto adagio – Neue Kraft fühlend. Andante – Molto adagio – Andante–Molto adagio. Mit innigster Empfindung:

4. Alla Marcia, assai vivace (attacca) 

5. Allegro appassionato – Presto

For me, one of the most amazing aspects of this music is the way it seems fully to transcend style and historical period. There are echoes of the Ninth Symphony, especially in the operatic, “wordless” violin recitative which forms the bridge between the fourth and fifth movements (36:10). In the final movement of the Ninth, Beethoven quotes the themes of each preceding movement, musically rejecting each and moving forward with the transcendental “Ode to Joy.” In a similar way, with these quartets, Beethoven moves past all of his earlier works into strange, new musical territory.

Go back and listen to the third movement (17:24) one more time. Having recovered from a serious illness, Beethoven titled this movement “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode.” The music abruptly alternates between slow, chorale like sections in modal F and faster sections (“with renewed strength”) in D. At times there is an almost child-like playfulness. It’s powerful music which goes beyond words.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Great Fugue, Op. 133[/typography]

[quote]It is an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.- Igor Stravinsky[/quote]

Here is the Takacs Quartet performing the mind-blowing Great Fugue, Op. 133. Beethoven originally intended it to be the final movement of Quartet No. 13. He ended up replacing it with another movement. After you listen, you’ll probably get a sense of why this intense music had to stand alone. Listen to the complex imitative counterpoint. What do you think Beethoven is saying with this music?

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