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Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93

About the Work

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quick Look Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America: Valery Gergiev, conductor / Joshua Bell, violin Sat., Jul. 13, 2013, 8:00 PM
© Harry Haskell
Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH

Born September 25 1906 in St. Petersburg

Died August 9, 1975 in Moscow

 

About the Composer: Shostakovich occupies a special niche in the annals of 20th-century Russian music. Unlike Stravinsky and Prokofiev, he didn’t come of age before the Bolshevik Revolution and immerse himself in Western culture. And unlike younger composers such as Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina, he didn’t live to see the fall of the regime that had muzzled artistic expression under the banner of socialist realism. Outwardly, Shostakovich remained a loyal citizen of the Soviet Union, alternately lionized and demonized by the Communist Party’s cultural apparatchiks. Throughout his life, the highly strung composer played an elaborate game of feint and attack with the authorities, cannily balancing his more abrasive, cutting-edge music with a stream of reassuringly patriotic and artistically conservative works. His output veers wildly between mordent satire (the opera The Nose and the ballet The Age of Gold), patriotic bombast (the Second Symphony and the symphonic poem October, both eulogizing the 1917 Revolution), and bleak alienation (almost any of his 15 string quartets). Fundamentally tonal but laced with dissonant harmonies and kinetic energy, Shostakovich’s music epitomizes the turbulent, existentialist spirit of the so-called Age of Anxiety.  

 

About the Work: In the political thaw that followed Stalin’s death in March 1953, Shostakovich reached a precarious entente with his political overseers, who needed the world-famous composer’s support almost as much as he needed theirs. He devoted that summer and fall to writing his first symphony in eight years. In its somber and often acerbic tone, Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony departs radically from the uplifting bromides of socialist realism. Its premiere on December 17, 1953 by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky, one of Shostakovich’s staunchest allies, ignited a debate between hard-line partisans of cultural orthodoxy and newly emboldened progressives. The ideological dispute became so heated that the composer Aram Khachaturian felt obliged to mount a convoluted defense of the Symphony No. 10 as “an optimistic tragedy, infused with a firm belief in the victory of bright, life-affirming forces.” The controversy put paid to Shostakovich’s hopes of winning the coveted Stalin Prize for the symphony. Instead, he was awarded the title “People’s Artist of the USSR,” an honor shared with his nemesis Tikhon Khrennikov, the powerful head of the Soviet Composers’ Union.

 

A Closer Listen: Structurally, Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony is decidedly unorthodox, with a massive, darkly brooding first movement followed by three faster movements of a predominantly bright and outgoing character. The opening Moderato—which is almost as long as the other three movements combined—traces a gigantic arc, arising from serpentine slitherings in the lower strings and fading away to the airy tweeting of a piccolo, like a solitary bird fluttering out of sight. Near the beginning, a solo clarinet introduces the simple, lullaby-like tune that will become one of the movement’s principal building blocks. But Shostakovich’s conception of the symphony is essentially dramatic, a struggle of opposing forces: Tenderly lyrical passages, often twinning woodwinds in transparent two-part counterpoint, contrast and contend with displays of brassy Brucknerian grandeur, intermittently punctuated by moments of triadic repose.

      The tautly wound, scherzo-like Allegro uses highly compressed rhythmic and melodic cells to conjure a mood of fierce bacchanalian frenzy. In the third-movement Allegretto, a dainty, mincing melody for the strings is transformed into the first of many statements of Shostakovich’s four-note musical monogram, D, E-flat, C, B (the first letters of his name spelled in German musical notation); listen for it near the beginning in the little trio for flute and clarinets. The movement is further inscribed with name of Elmira Nazirova, a former student for whom the composer seems to have carried a torch; her five-note motif (E, A, E, D, A) is repeatedly punched out like a clarion call by the French horn. After a flowing Andante introduction, the final Allegro takes off lickety-split, pauses for a unison statement of the Shostakovich motif by the full orchestra, then drives on at full throttle to the final explosive E-major chord.