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Composed: 1946-53
Length: c. 50 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes (2nd = 2nd piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, military drum, snare drum, tam tam, triangle, and xylophone), and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 9, 1961, Erich Leinsdorf conducting

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is 48 minutes of tragedy, despair, terror, and violence and two minutes of triumph. Since the end of the 1970s, the most widely accepted interpretation of the work has seen it as a depiction of the Stalin years in Russia, when between eight and 20 million people died as a direct or indirect result of Stalin’s regime and when those who didn’t lived in constant fear. Shostakovich certainly felt the capriciousness of Stalin’s rule first-hand – he was publicly denounced, his works proscribed, and his status reduced to that of a “non-person.” Friends and colleagues disappeared, many of them never to return. The horror of these years – and the collective sigh of relief that doubtlessly followed when Stalin died on March 5, 1953 – certainly make a plausible program for Shostakovich’s Tenth.

Testimony, the memoir published in English in 1979 whose reliability scholars have strongly called into question and those who knew Shostakovich have just as strongly affirmed, first introduced this program: “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 memoir appeared at a time when Shostakovich’s reputation in the West was at a low, and painting his Tenth as an indictment of Stalin could only help improve the situation.

Now, that historical moment is comparatively remote and Shostakovich occupies a central position in the repertory as the most important Soviet composer of the 20th century. And, while the Stalin story may be a helpful entry-point into this music, there’s much more to the Symphony. Shostakovich’s Tenth is an astounding achievement in symphonic form at a time when most western composers had abandoned the symphony.

Traditionally, Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony has been dated to the summer of 1953, after Stalin’s death; the composer hadn’t written a symphony since an infamous 1948 crackdown proscribed his music. Recent scholarship has shown that the first movement’s two opening themes rework ideas from an abandoned 1946 violin sonata; the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva asserted that Shostakovich composed the movement in the early part of 1951, simultaneously with his 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano, and completed the Symphony, perhaps in an early version, that year. Shostakovich’s own letters clearly date much of the work on the Symphony to the summer of 1953, but, in light of this other evidence, the work had definitely been stirring in the composer’s imagination for several years.

The Symphony opens with an extended Moderato that comprises nearly half of the work’s total length. The movement revolves around two extended groups of thematic material. The first contrasts a steady tread that begins in the cellos and basses with longer notes held initially by violins and violas. Out of this, a wistful motive emerges in the clarinet, from which Shostakovich builds to an impassioned, wrenching climax. After a grave brass chorale and an extended reiteration of the clarinet motive, the solo flute starts the second group of material, which Shostakovich slyly works into an insinuating, almost predatory waltz. The bassoon takes up the clarinet motive to launch the movement’s nightmarish central section, as Shostakovich quickly builds to a sustained emotional outpouring, complete with shrieking piccolos and ominous military drum.

Using marches and waltzes for the interior movements of a symphony was something Tchaikovsky had done, so Shostakovich’s decision to write a march for the second movement of the Tenth and a waltz for the third comes as no surprise. The march – Testimony calls it “a musical portrait of Stalin” – is music of unremitting terror and frenzied violence, the military drum again making its presence keenly felt.

In the third-movement waltz, the composer introduces himself into the music with a motto derived from the German transliteration of his name, D. Schostakowitsch. He creates a musical signature – D, E-flat, C, and B, the D-S-C-H motive – from his first initial and the first three letters of his last name. (In German, E-flat is known as “Es” and B natural as “H.”) This motive is first introduced by flutes and clarinets about a minute into the movement. Another motive, played repeatedly by the solo horn, comes from the name of one of his female pupils, Elmira Nazirova (E-A-E-D-A, or E-La-Mi-Re-A with solfège mixed in), a code cracked by Shostakovich scholar Nelly Kravetz. At the movement’s close, the horn obsesses on the Elmira motive while the piccolo and the flute play the D-S-C-H signature, underlining the music’s dimension of personal tragedy, its sardonic, bitter tone arising from unfulfilled longing for an unattainable muse.

The finale begins with an extended dialog dominated by solo winds, an effective counterbalance to the Symphony’s opening. The clarinet launches the manic Allegro, which soon ventures into the nightmare territory of the opening movement. A massive eruption of the D-S-C-H motive, hammered out by the full orchestra triple forte, stops the madness. The motive hovers in the background during the ensuing passage, played three times by trumpet and trombone, before a return to the allegro material. It starts as a jaunty bassoon solo, finally untroubled by the shadows that have haunted the rest of the Symphony. The music builds to a massive climax, fortified by the D-S-C-H motive (in horns and trumpets), a resolute assertion of the individual’s triumph over a soulless, dehumanizing regime.

— John Mangum