Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10

'An optimistic tragedy'

Dmitri Shostakovich’s music cannot be approached without taking the circumstances of his life in the Soviet Union into consideration. Although we may never know exactly what is true and what is not, it remains that Shostakovich reacted to the events around him in his music, sometimes obviously yielding, at others sharply ironic and sarcastic. He had to run the gauntlet throughout his life in order to keep those in power satisfied, although not always with success. The first serious attack on his work occurred in January 1936: his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mzensk District was a great success, but the infamous article Muddle instead of music written under direct orders from Stalin and published in Pravda soon ended not only this rejoicing but also Shostakovich’s chances of having the work performed. He prudently withdrew his Fourth Symphony and wrote a Fifth that showed every sign of having been written under direct orders of the Soviet authorities. Its subtitle 'The answer of a Soviet artist to justified criticism' spoke volumes, even though Shostakovich would later interpret it differently: 'It should be clear to everyone what happened there. It is as if someone is beating you with a stick and says that it is your task to bring happiness, it is your task to bring happiness. So you stand up, moaning with pain, and say ‘it is my task to bring happiness, it is my task to bring happiness!' The Fifth became one of Shostakovich’s most successful symphonies.

Shostakovich emerged from another particularly trying time with the Tenth Symphony. It was the first work that Shostakovich composed after the death of his tormentor Josef Stalin on 5 March 1953. He had been relatively silent for five years, for on 10 February 948 he had been reprimanded even more severely than in 1936. Everything that Shostakovich had composed was described as being 'insanely sombre and neurotic' and 'unnatural for Soviet citizens'. All recordings of his works had to be destroyed and all of his scores had to be revised. In protest Shostakovich composed very few large scale works until after Stalin’s death; he devoted himself instead to the 24 Preludes and Fugues for the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva. It was only after Stalin’s death that he felt liberated enough to write for orchestra again.

According to Nikolayeva, he had already made the first sketches for the Tenth Symphony in 1951, although there is no concrete evidence of this. In his controversial Testimony, the English translation of which was published in 1979 and caused much comment, Shostakovich remarks that this symphony was about 'Stalin and the years of Stalin’s regime'. Although malicious tongues soon stated that this story had been put about in order to gain recognition for Shostakovich’s music in the West — any work that ridiculed Stalin would always be popular — the story is too fine to be dismissed as apocryphal. According to those who knew, Solomon Volkov’s book quotes Shostakovich’s exact words:

'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'.

The second movement, a scherzo, is intended as a musical portrait of Stalin; it is not a flattering one, with a continuous fortissimo thundering like a steamroller through the entire movement – only four minutes in length. It contrasts totally with the darker Moderato, cast in the form of an impressive arch, which launches the symphony. Both movements are finally apparent as a long upbeat to the third movement. This begins as a gruesome waltz, although it quickly becomes clear that it represents Shostakovich’s own personal resurrection. We hear the DSCH motive (the composer’s initials as the notes D, E flat, C and B) for the first time in this Allegretto. Shostakovich’s deed here has well been described as 'a declaration of individualism in a culture of totalitarian collectivism'.

There was also another theme, however, a horn theme that is repeated twelve times in the third movement, which exercised the minds of many. It was only when Shostakovich’s letters to his pupil Elmira Nazirova, written in 1953, came to light that it was realised that this theme — which is also related to a theme from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde — represents Elmira. Its notes — EAEDA — can be read with a little imagination as E, L(a), Mi, R(e), A. Shostakovich wrote to his beloved pupil 'This is the result. Even if I had not arrived at this result, I would still think of you constantly — whether or not this fact is notated in my worthless manuscript'.

This reads like a love letter, and so it was. Shostakovich had enjoyed close relationships with two of his female students, Galina Ustvolskaya and Elmira Nazirova, during the 1940s and 1950s, despite his marriage to Nina Varzar. His relationship with Ustvolskaya in particular, whom he tutored from 1937 till 1947, went further than normal friendship, although it is unclear exactly how much. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich once diplomatically described their relationship as ‘tender’, although Ustvolskaya refused the proposal of marriage Shostakovich made to her shortly after his wife’s death. Shostakovich seems also to have had little success with Nazirova; he expressed his affection for her many times in letters from the first half of the 1950s, but his feelings seem never to have been truly reciprocated. Bearing the above in mind, the Allegretto can also be heard as a bitter conclusion to a chapter in which Shostakovich writes off his unrequited desires.

The fourth movement also begins sombrely. Shostakovich seems to have himself once more in hand and the DSCH theme takes a prominent place. Although the symphony finally comes to a close with an optimistic Allegro, Shostakovich’s characteristically dark undertones are nonetheless present. The Union of Soviet Composers clearly noticed this as well: in discussions of the work after its 1954 premiere, it was recognised that it was a turning point in the history of the Soviet Union, but there was difficulty in placing it in the desired tradition of Soviet realism. The young composer Andrei Volkonsky finally came up with the most politically acceptable description: the Tenth Symphony was 'an optimistic tragedy'. Shostakovich’s position as the premier Soviet composer was for the moment guaranteed.

Translation: Peter Lockwood