Dmitri Shostakovich ‘Symphony No. 10 in E minor’: A Portrait of Russia

Welcome classical music fans to this new blog about tragedy, violence, triumph and intense despair, which is so cleverly portrayed in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor. I recently was lucky enough to play this symphony with the fabulous Sheffield-based orchestra, Hallam Sinfonia and it reminded me how much I enjoy Shostakovich’s music. I do hope you enjoy this very powerful symphony and all the delights it has to offer!

Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg on September 25th, 1906 and by the age of nine he began to play the piano. By the tender young age of thirteen, Shostakovich was admitted into the prestigious Petrograd Conservatory, where he learnt piano under Leonid Nikolayev. At this point in time he was also studying composition under the tutelage of Maximillian Shteynberg. After graduating, Shostakovich earned his money by composing which was all fine until the U. S. S. R. began to interfere with his creative work. In 1937 he took a position teaching at Leningrad Conservatory, and alongside this he kept on composing. As many of you may know, Shostakovich’s career spanned nearly the whole of Stalin’s reign over Russia, and so he faced close scrutiny of his music, priorities and allegiance to the country. This tumultuous relationship certainly affected Shostakovich’s creative output for some time, even after Stalin’s death in 1953. After meeting with the dictator in 1943, Shostakovich was closely watched and essentially used as a representative for the communism movement. Preaching ideals and prepared speeches, Shostakovich worked for Stalin, although secretly he detested the government’s values and the situation they were putting the country in. This meant that he was forced to work within the constraints of the U. S. S. R. whilst trying to establish more of a creative career in music.

After Stalin died in 1953 due to a brain haemorrhage (weirdly, the same day and the same way as Sergei Prokofiev – a good friend to Shostakovich and a prominent Russian composer)  the country felt some creative relief, which ultimately meant that creatives such as Shostakovich could resume to their art forms without worrying about being arrested, or worse: killed. In his memoir from the 1970s, Shostakovich claims that the Tenth Symphony was an indictment of Stalin and his years of reign:

“But I did depict Stalin in music in my next Symphony, the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the Symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years.”

It seems that Shostakovich did this to perhaps gain popularity from outside of Russia, since all of his work was exclusively for Russia during Stalin’s reign. This may be false, and it seems that scholars and fans alike are unable to agree on this, but the music does can certainly reflect the tyranny and dictatorship that was so prevalent throughout the country. It is difficult to pin down when exactly the Tenth Symphony was composed due to Stalin’s reign, but also his death, which threw the country up in the air for quite some time. It was around the time of Stalin’s death that the Tenth Symphony was most likely composed.

As aforementioned, Shostakovich had a wild ride when it came to composing symphonies and the Russian government. After the denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth in 1936, Shostakovich saved himself from exile by composing the mighty Fifth Symphony which was state-approved. Later on his Seventh and Eighth symphonies, which are said to be a response to the Nazi actions in World War II, the Soviet officials were expecting an even bigger work to follow, perhaps something like Beethoven’s grand Ninth Symphony. However, they were instead greeted with a small-scale symphony from Shostakovich, which was rejected by the regime and once all of Shostakovich’s hard work was taken away in a flash. Therefore, the Tenth Symphony had to be bold, mighty and most importantly: powerful. His second denunciation in his career seemed to spur Shostakovich on to compose perhaps his most well-known work, which was initially rejected and slated by the Union of Soviet Composers, however the public quickly took to the Tenth Symphony, and saw it as a true and vivid representation of their struggles in Russia. The Tenth Symphony is historical for a menagerie of reasons, however one of the most prominent is Shostakovich’s use of the symphonic form, at a time where many other Western composers had abandoned the form. The story of Stalin is a mere entry point into this explosive symphony with Shostakovich’s symphonic mastery coming into the forefront.

Movement I – Moderato 

The symphony opens with an extended Moderato section, which is mainly just the string section alone. This colossal first movement is composed of two main groups of thematic material, and this first one makes up for nearly half of this movement. This opening has been described as Shostakovich’s most structurally perfect orchestral composition, and I would definitely be inclined to agree with this statement. Largely in sonata form, the first movement comes across as ‘typical’ in a terms of symphonic structure. The slow introduction is built up on a foundation of six notes, which grow from the basses upwards. A solo clarinet joins a bit further in and this prompts the winds to embellish this wistful string writing below. This all leads to an explosive climax full of passion, boldness and excitement. There are many extremes going on here, both in terms of pitch and dynamic, which creates a cacophony of noise at points. After a loud, pertinent brass chorale there is development on the initial clarinet solo from the beginning.

The second part of this movement is initiated by the flute, which propels the music forward with a chromatic bouncing rhythm that eventually leads into the bassoon motif that takes us into the panic-ridden central section of the movement. An explosion of sounds, this section is powerful and swelling with all the different timbres of the orchestra. Described as a ‘sustained emotional outpouring’, this section is incredibly fiery and sees Shostakovich using many different compositional techniques to reach the these heart-wrenching climaxes. The percussion, acting as a military drum, push the music along and the shrieking Eb clarinet and piccolo flute also aid with this. After this rather unsettling section, Shostakovich begins to dilute the music until back at a slow and quiet Moderato for the home stretch of the movement. With strings taking the lead once more, the winds often embellish and reiterate past themes. The end is quiet, with just a solitary piccolo flute left to end this movement.

Movement II – Allegro 

The second movement, perhaps the most famous of them all, is only a mere 4-5 minutes in length. This very bold movement is said to be a ‘musical portrait’ of Stalin and the music reflects this by being unrelenting, aggressive and full of frenzied violence (rather accurate I’d say!). It begins with the main theme in the strings, a strong crotchet-quaver motif which is at an incredibly fast pace. The oboes enter with a counter melody, which soon takes off and the strings act as an off-beat accompaniment to this frenzied motif. The motif is moved around the different sections, until a proclamation from the brass. The militaristic snare drum pushes the music even further and the shrieking upper winds and strings play ‘whirling’ themes which induce much panic. There is so much going on in this movement it is impossible to name everything! The off-beat accompaniment is passed around every section, giving a sense of imbalance in the piece which is very unsettling. Every instrument is important in this movement as it aids the creation of this portrait that Shostakovich is trying to musically paint of Stalin. The movement ends with a fast flourish into the top ranges of many instruments, leaving the listener on the edge of their seat and wanting more of this music!

Movement III – Largo – Piu Mosso

Following the fast March of the previous movement is a slower waltz. Cleverly, Shostakovich uses a musical cryptogram within this movement to intertwine the German translation of his name (Shostakowitsch). His musical signature, if you will, is as follows D-Eb-C-B (which translates into D-S-C-H in the German scale). This makes up his first initial, followed by the first three letters of his last name. This motif is first introduced by the winds. This is not the only cryptogram, however, as well as his own name, Shostakovich incorporated the name of one of his female pupils – Elmira Nazirova. Shostakovich was having intense correspondence with Nazirova around this time, and her name (a mixture of some Western notation and the Solfège – E-La-Mi-Re-A) is proclaimed by the haunting solo horn. It has been said that this movement highlights personal tragedy due to Shostakovich using these particular scales and motifs. There is an underlying bitter tone within this movement which is never quite resolved, even by end of the movement. I find this movement very repetitive and there is a lot of development in the themes, which are made using extreme dynamics and various orchestrations. The end of the movement end quietly with strings, two flutes and a solo (muted) horn.

Movement IV – Allegro 

The finale begins with a cello motif that leads into an extended dialogue of solo woodwind melodies, which offers a counterbalance to the Symphony’s opening movement. After this slow introduction, the much faster Allegro section begins, with the aid of the clarinet. Hysteria and violence are certainly words I think of when the Allegro section gets into full swing, and the anger and passion from the first two movements return to create a pertinent statement from Shostakovich. What breaks this is an eruption of the D-S-C-H motif from the previous movement, which is hammered out by the full orchestra. This motif then stays in the background as the movement gathers momentum again, which leads to a jaunty bassoon solo that somehow moves through and past the shadows that have covered the rest of this symphony. The darkness begins to clear somewhat and the final climax of the movement is fortified by the D-S-C-H motif by the brass and the orchestra begin to show the triumph of hope. This triumph is said to be over the dehumanizing Stalin regime that affected so many people over many decades. The symphony ends with so much power and triumph with the full orchestra bringing themes back and proclaiming their win over the regime which is incredibly powerful.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is a symbol of the power of the people, and this is perhaps why audiences were positive about this work. Shostakovich employs memorable themes, intriguing forms, colourful tonality and modulations as well as complex orchestrations. I’d like to think that the Tenth Symphony allowed Shostakovich a sense of catharsis after the death of Stalin, but this we cannot know. The ultimate battle of wills between Shostakovich and Stalin are unified within this work and it is still and incredibly popular symphony in concert halls today. I really enjoyed playing this symphony with Hallam Sinfonia as the trumpet part was always loud and fun to play! I am a big Shostakovich fan and I am sure I will cover more of his compositions soon!

I hope you have enjoyed delving into this fiery work, keep your eyes peeled for the next blog coming soon!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

 

 

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