The Seven Verses, Op. 127, are from a time of decline and difficulty far removed from the youthful optimism that produced the first piano trio and piano sonata. The post-Stalin period of political and artistic liberalization known as the "Thaw" had ended with the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. In 1958 Shostakovich had begun having problems with his right hand, limiting his ability to play the piano. In 1966 he had a heart attack. Composing came hard, and the music he did compose took on a somber cast.
While in the hospital recuperating from his heart attack, Shostakovich read through a collection of poems by Alexander Blok (1880-1921), a symbolist poet whose iconic status has survived the fall of the Soviet state. The dark tone of Blok's poems must have matched Shostakovich's mood. When the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, a longtime friend, asked him to compose songs for cello and soprano for Rostropovich and his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, Shostakovich turned to Blok's poems. A few days after he finished the cycle on February 3, 1967, he told a visiting friend that though he had conceived it well before Rostropovich's request, he was unable to compose it until he found a bottle of brandy that his wife - who was otherwise vigilant and ruthless in keeping her ailing husband away from potentially harmful substances - had not hidden thoroughly enough. After a reviving shot of the brandy, Shostakovich said, he finished the cycle in three days.
The finished cycle is for voice, piano, cello, and violin in varying combinations. For the most part, the vocal part is simple and declamatory; the voice supplies the words while the instruments supply motion and much of the melodic interest.
"Ophelia's Song," the only song actually for cello and voice, is a lament for the departed Hamlet. Blok based "Hamayun, the Prophetic Bird" on a Victor Vasnetsov painting of a bird with a woman's face. The piano moves around the voice in stark, foreboding scales, departing from them only as the bird concludes its dire prophecy, then returning to them for the final stanza. (Shostakovich intended the piano part for himself, so the starkness was to some extent dictated by his weak right hand.) When the voice stops, the piano's full-voiced minor-ninth chord comes as a shocking contrast to the austerity that precedes it.
"We Were Together" recalls a moment when lovers heard a violin. The voice gets in a simple folk-like melody, while the violin walks along with a folk-like melody of its own that becomes more flighty when the violin in the poem inspires the lovers to kiss.
In "The City Sleeps" a still, three-voiced accompaniment (the piano playing bare octaves again) evokes the solemn St. Petersburg night.
The final three songs follow each other without pause. In "Storm," the violin and piano create the fearsome wind and rain. In a calmer passage, the poet regards the plight of the homeless. The storm returns and ends abruptly, leaving the cello to usher in "Mysterious Signs" with a quiet sense of foreboding. The mood scarcely changes when the piano enters to begin the final song, a hymn to "Music." The music becomes animated only in the final stanza, when the undeserving servant offers music his own blood, a sentiment that must have resonated with Shostakovich.