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Views And Reviews: Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10

Paul Serotsky suggests that Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 expresses what life was like in the Soviet Union during the fear-laden regime of Joseph Stalin.

Shostakovich (1906-1975) – Symphony No. 10

Shostakovich’s symphonic structures often confound traditional analysis. Therefore traditional analysts often, mistakenly, dismiss his symphonies as “impostors”. The reason is simple: his structures are not purely musical, but driven by dramatic designs – not always, but “often”. In works where the musical aspect predominates, folk will declare Shostakovich to be a fine, if perhaps somewhat wayward composer. But, where the dramatic aspect predominates, reactions tend to be a bit more extreme – even unto the occasional accusation of “propagandist!”

The crunch comes on those occasions where these two aspects are finely balanced. Then, they strike a spark – and his music flares with an incandescent power that frequently fries those analysts. The Tenth Symphony is a case in point. Our ears insist instinctively that it is a masterpiece, but its structure is one that tends to defeat conventional analysis. Hence, to comprehend its construction, we need an unconventional method – to “prove” it is a symphony, we must divine the drama.

However Shostakovich, for obvious reasons, didn’t provide a programme, so where do we start? Well, first let’s set the context. Following World War II, Uncle Joe screwed his totalitarian vice even tighter. Apparently, this was intended as a kindly gesture, to ensure that the People didn’t naively confuse “victory” with “freedom”. Shostakovich, for his “crime” of writing a Ninth Symphony that gave joy to the people rather than an Ode to Joy to the Soviet State, was censured.

During the immediate post-war years, Zhdanov was busy “purging” the various Russian artistic communities. In 1948, the storm-clouds broke over the Composers’ Union. Along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Myaskovsky, Shostakovich was pilloried – which was, I believe, a Soviet euphemism for “you’re lucky we didn’t just shoot you”. True to form, Shostakovich’s resolve quietly hardened. Dutifully, he kept his head down and appeared to devote himself to churning out sweet-meats for the State. Secreted in his bottom drawer, amongst other works, the Tenth Symphony was slowly taking shape – and there it would stay, snug in its “coffin”, against the day that Stalin was safely tucked away in his.

Let’s assume it’s true that Shostakovich really was a musical subversive. In the turf accountant’s parlance, this isn’t a racing certainty, but it is an odds-on bet – and the odds are shortening all the time. There is, however, one racing certainty: we have it from the horse’s mouth that the second movement is a “portrait of Stalin”. Frenetic, free-flowing, short but extremely savage, it’s hardly what we’d expect for the depiction of a despot. Shostakovich knew – he must have done: see “pilloried” above – that the denizens of the Kremlin would swallow the idea that the music portrayed the late, Great Leader’s boundless energy and dynamism. Everybody else, of course, would have understood that Stalin, through his own incessant machinations, spread a deep fear that stifled any “unauthorised activity” in all others.

Yet, this “portrait” would make sense only if the rest of the symphony was somehow related. Let’s try that for size. First, consider this picture of fear-induced stasis:

“(1) Each night, the ‘officially un-personed’ one paced restlessly in the gloom of his room, paused, listened intently, then continued pacing. Trapped on a treadmill, his nightly coil of thoughts began to unwind. Silhouetted by the dim light seeping under the dark door, his suitcase – always ready should ‘they’ come for him – brought (2) a brief memory of family life before the Terror, and (3) the inevitable surge of sorrow. Then, the Question: (4) how did we let ourselves slip into such insanity? But there was no answer, and (5) gradually his thoughts – fear, resentment, helplessness, despair – coagulated into (6) boiling, bitter, but impotent anger. Finally, as weariness dissipated his fury, (7) his thoughts crumbled. (8) Forlornly, he faced the window, staring blankly out. (9) He could see no hope whatsoever in the cold, grey light of dawn.”

That could easily describe Shostakovich’s own predicament. It could also describe the dramatic scenario of the Tenth Symphony’s sullen and searing first movement. To get the drift, try following these correspondingly numbered signposts:

(1) First subject: brooding [strings]
(2) Second subject – or perhaps an extension of the first? [solo clarinet]
(3) Climax
(4) Third subject – or perhaps the second? – limping waltz [solo flute]
(5) “Development” starts – first subject [oily black bass reeds]
(6) Massive main climax
(7) “Recapitulation” – first subject [clarinet duet]
(8) Third Subject – so maybe it is the second! [clarinet duet]
(9) First subject [tympani roll, woodwind]

Looking now at the third movement’s astonishingly graphic core, there appears, on a ringing solo horn, a mysterious, virtually immutable motive. This may well be the key to the entire symphony. Like DSCH (the German notation for D-Eflat-C-B) for “Dmitri Shostakovich”, the five notes of this motive are a code* for the name of Elmira Nazirova, a young and talented pupil of Shostakovich’s during that grim period. According to Aida Huseinova, “Nazirova remembers how, during [a concert], she chose a seat somewhere near Shostakovich or, more precisely, within the ‘vacuum’ around him. The composer . . . asked, ‘Aren't you scared?’” I imagine she was – the brave are always scared. Small wonder, then, that Shostakovich took her to his heart. For the desperately isolated composer, she must have been an unwavering symbol of hope.

There are many theories concerning the interaction of the “DSCH” and “Elmira” motives. These range from a simple reflection on their conversations to an idea that the twelve occurrences of “Elmira” suggest midnight chimes, and hence hint at the illicitness of Shostakovich's feelings – which is somewhat tenuous, especially as there’s no evidence of any sort of impropriety. However, such suggestions tend to be based purely on the motives themselves whilst we, searching for a symphonic scenario, are more concerned with what Shostakovich does with these motives. Here’s something else to try for size . . .

Following the sudden derailing of Stalin’s juggernaut (end of second movement), “DSCH” does not, as you might expect, celebrate immediately: hovering on the brink of hope but still fearful, it cowers uncertainly in the thematic undergrowth of the tentative dancing. Then “Elmira” strides purposefully onto the scene – and proceeds to conduct a “holy exorcism”, casting out the thematic ghosts of the tyrant and his dominion. Feeling much more secure, “DSCH” trades timid doubt for the courage to celebrate. Hand in hand they dance, stamping jubilantly on the ashes of evil. Then “Elmira” recedes, leaving a spiritually purified “DSCH” in pensive peace.

It follows (doesn’t it?) that the opening of the finale must be a rosy new dawn, whose warmth and sensual coiling supplant the first movement’s endless, unremittingly grey dawn. Correspondingly, the ensuing allegro’s vigorous, almost hysterical popular rejoicing transmutes the second movement’s dictatorial aggression. At the central climax, complementing the third movement’s private catharsis, the deliriously unfettered bellow of “I am DSCH!” is Shostakovich’s long-awaited moment of public catharsis. Subdued by the shock of realisation, “DSCH” muses for a moment on the “rosy new dawn”, but gradually (c.f. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony) rejoicing resumes, ultimately dominated by the now-exultant motive.

If there’s truth in my words, then the Tenth is a devastating, profoundly personal expression of what life was like, not just for Shostakovich himself, but for millions of individual people. It is a sobering thought. Yet, even if you don’t go along with my particular slant, you will still have a dramatic skeleton that spawns a symphonic logic of truly awesome potential – Q.E.D., I hope! Flesh out that skeleton as you will – it will remain devastating.

© Paul Serotsky 2003, 2007

* The five notes are E-A-E-D-A. However, Shostakovich’s code cunningly uses the C Major tonic sol-fa for the middle three letters. Making that further substitution gives you E-La-Mi-Re-A, which spells ELMIRA. That this motive quite closely resembles the opening theme of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is, as Shostakovich suggested, “something for the musicologists to ponder.”


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