Seeking Shostakovich: Thinking About The Tenth Symphony (Part 1 of 2)

Dmitri Shostakovich, undated

Dmitri Shostakovich, undated

Shostakovich usually composed at white-hot speed, and the Tenth Symphony was no exception. While he may have started mulling over ideas that became part of the Tenth Symphony some years before [Wilson 302], “the preponderance of both external and internal evidence” indicates that he started work on it in June, 1953—three months after Stalin died—and completed it in October of the same year [Fay 2673].

In 1954, after the Tenth Symphony’s premiere, Shostakovich wrote about his composing process in Sovetskaya Muzyka (Soviet Music Magazine)

As with other works of mine, I wrote it quickly. This is perhaps not so much a virtue as a failing, because when one works so fast not everything turns out well. As soon as a piece is completed the creative fever subsides; and when you see faults in the piece, sometimes major and far-reaching ones, you begin to think that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to avoid them in your future work. As for what has been written—that’s done, thank goodness. [Fanning 77]

The rest of the article constituted Shostakovich’s own critique of the Tenth Symphony’s supposed failings, like this:

Appraising the first movement of the symphony critically, I see that I did not succeed in doing what I’ve long dreamed of: writing a real symphonic allegro. It did not come to me in this symphony, just as it did not in my previous symphonic works. But I hope that in the future I will succeed in writing such an allegro. [Fanning 77]

As the article was a public statement, the usual questions arise. Did Shostakovich write this critique or, as with so many of his public statements, did someone write it for him? If he did write it, how much of what he wrote did he really mean, and to what extent was he simply trying to throw his critics off the scent? Elizabeth Wilson thought his self-criticism’s “absurdity is so patent . . . the composer must have penned it himself. . . .” [Wilson 303]

OttawayWhatever Shostakovich may have actually thought about his work, Wilson wrote that “The Tenth Symphony can be regarded as a landmark in the composer’s output, and its perfection of form has been consistently praised.” [Wilson 302] Hugh Ottaway, whose 1978 guide to Shostakovich’s symphonies is fascinating on many levels, wrote much the same: “this Symphony . . . is widely regarded as the finest in the series.” [Ottaway 45]  David Fanning, “whose brilliant study of the Tenth Symphony,” according to Wilson, “has yet to be bettered” [Wilson 305, n. 13], cited several more examples that support this view [Fanning 3, n. 7].

Even though the Tenth Symphony more than passes my own personal test for “what makes it great,” I didn’t want to rely solely on received wisdom about its “perfection of form” as my own bottom line. So off I trotted to the local library, inter-library loan requests in hand, to get and read Fanning, Ottaway, and anything else I could lay my hands on that might tell me more. I dutifully read each essay and monograph I got hold of to understand what marked it for this accolade above all the others I admire.

As is customary when I wander beyond my zone of proximal development, my instinct was to throw book after book across the room. Here’s a sample tantrum:

Why all this dissection? Does dissection really lead anyone to the music, or is it a sideshow, born of a desperate need to exercise control over the unknowable? How do we decide a form is perfect, anyway? Against exactly what “gold standard” is the form of the Tenth Symphony being judged?

FanningFanning proved to be my particular bête noir—not because I don’t credit Wilson’s judgment about his study, but precisely because I do. To the extent I had sufficient grounding to understand them, I found his insights valuable. Fanning made clear at the outset that his intention wasn’t to make the case for the Tenth Symphony’s particular greatness, but to examine that contention against information the symphony might contain. Along the way, however, Fanning did make judgments. Here’s an example:

The dissociation of the thematic and tonal aspects of recapitulation, and the long-range control of the B paragraph, represent the most powerful structural concept in all Shostakovich’s first movement sonata recapitulations. Those in the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies . . . are also fine, and in general Shostakovich always finds a technique well adapted to his purposes . . . but nowhere does he match the control of long-range musical thought evident in the Tenth Symphony. [Fanning 29; italics mine]

As a listener who isn’t technically trained, I found myself in an impossible position. I can’t possibly evaluate Fanning’s judgments based on musicological analysis, but I also can’t help but believe that, in the end, despite his thoughtful assessments, his judgments, like anyone else’s, are necessarily subjective. While examination of technical aspects of any given symphony can reveal valuable information about how Shostakovich achieved the effects we hear, I’m not convinced this information can ever be determinative in evaluating the “greatness” of a work. In the end, it seems to me, “greatness” is necessarily ineffable. It is a perception, not a fact, and what is perceived as “great” can—and often does—change over time.

Bard Professor Christopher Gibbs, in his documentary essay examining “initial performances of the Seventh [Symphony] in North America” [Gibbs 60], concluded, “. . . musical works are always heard within history, a testimony not only to their time of creation, but also to their subsequent realizations and rehearings. The Seventh is always changing” [Gibbs 105].

Among other histories, Shostakovich’s music is in conversation with the long history of symphonic music, of which he had deep knowledge and understanding. He didn’t, however, rely on traditional guideposts of symphonic form for coherence, but rather put them to his own astonishing use. I admire this: it takes a certain kind of courage to embrace tradition rather than abandon it, not to mention a certain kind of genius to stand with tradition and at the same time succeed in making it one’s own in an enduring way.

Form is only a means. A compelling expression of a singular artistic vision is the end. So, for example, while I found Ottaway’s conclusions about the Sixth Symphony interesting, my ears don’t agree:

This is an exhilarating piece, but those Soviet critics who find its gaiety ‘reckless’ have a point. For it is hard to feel that these three movements, each of which is highly imaginative, hold together as a dramatic entity. [Ottaway 33]

But does this (or any) symphony need to “hold together as a dramatic entity” to succeed? Could not a symphony that flies apart be just as valid—or one so seemingly unbalanced as Shostakovich’s Sixth?

As Jonathan Biss said of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 12, Opus 26:

If I were to try to explain to you why these movements belong together . . . I would fail. . . . [H]is intuitive understanding of the emotional impact of his music is so strong, so unimpeachable, that everything that occurs feels inevitable. [my transcription of a comment of his from Week Three, Lecture 2, of his course, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas]

This is not simply the province of Beethoven, however. To my ears, Biss’s statement is no less true for the preponderance of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Of the ones I’ve so far studied, I’d include the Fourth, Fifth (with a caveat about its finale),  Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and now the Tenth.

(While I don’t include the First Symphony, which received its premiere when Shostakovich was nineteen years old, it was a close call. Despite misgivings I noted in the post on this symphony, in live performance, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Juilliard Orchestra, I found it an extraordinary, unforgettable ride.)

All that said, in the Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich is alive to us and moving through the musical landscape he’s created in a particular way. In my next post, Finding Shostakovich: Listening to the Tenth Symphony (Part 2 of 2), I’ll take my own personal journey through Shostakovich’s Tenth. I hope you’ll join me there.

Listening List

Shostakovich with the Borodin Quartet

Shostakovich with the Borodin Quartet

Hugh Ottaway wrote

. . . up to and including No. 10 (1953), the symphonies may be said to represent the main line of [Shostakovich’s] development; but in the last twenty years or so the emphasis shifted to the string quartets, of which nine were written in that time. This does not mean that the later symphonies are unimportant, but it does necessitate rather more critical reference to works in other forms. [Ottaway 9]

In July, 1960, Shostakovich wrote to Glikman:

I composed my Eighth Quartet. As hard as I tried to rough out the film scores which I am supposed to be doing, I still haven’t managed to get anywhere; instead I wrote this ideologically flawed quartet which is of no use to anybody. I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself. The title page could carry the dedication: “To the memory of the composer of this quartet.”

The basic theme of the quartet is the four notes D natural, E flat, C natural, B natural—that is, my initials, D. SCH. . . . It is a pseudo-tragic quartet, so much so that while I was composing it I shed the same amount of tears as I would have to pee after half-a-dozen beers. [Glikman 90-91]

The “D. SCH.” theme appears as the Eighth Quartet’s opening notes, and you’ll hear it in every movement of the quartet.

On Spotify

On YouTube


Credits: The quotations indicated in the text are linked directly in the text. The sources for the images in the post are at the following links: Shostakovich, Ottaway, Fanning, Shostakovich and the Borodin Quartet.


20 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich: Thinking About The Tenth Symphony (Part 1 of 2)

  1. kylegann

    Susan, I think everyone who writes about music should be made to read this and think about your honest responses. I sometimes write about music in technical terms that one has to know some music theory to read, but when I’m not doing that, I do try to avoid these kind of objective-sounding pronouncements that can’t be refuted because they’re not saying anything definite. There’s a classical-music rhetoric that everyone learns that’s too easy to get away with. I think you should work for music publishers, sitting by the editor’s desk, being handed each page, looking at it for a minute, and saying “unh-unh” and handing it back. And I admire you for putting so much time into getting Shostakovich. I might have tried it when I was young, but at my age I give up easier.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Kyle: Well, you know, your post ( was definitely inspirational (though you are NOT in any way responsible for the result). The very thought of sitting next to an editor opining “unh-unh” sure made me laugh. Is that the revenge OF the lay listener, or maybe revenge ON the lay listener!? But let it be said, I appreciate and gain an enormous amount from the research and insights of professional music critics, writers, and analysts. It’s in the concluding judgments where things can quickly go wrong, isn’t it (for all of us, whether on the technical side or otherwise)? Your Poisoned Musicology post ( seems to me to offer a good example of the problem.

  2. David N

    I love the way the preface, the detour, is just as important (I’m guessing) as what’s to follow. You’re right, it’s what’s done with the form, how it’s bent, that matters. I don’t want to pre-empt anything you’re going to write, but while I can’t agree with Fanning that the long-term thinking of the first movement is any more impressive than its counterparts in the Sixth and Eighth (or even, on its own unique terms, the one in the Seventh) I feel that the purgatorial role of the third movement is where DDS makes his own special departure from overall form, as he had done in every preceding symphony except the First and Seventh. Another hint: my hunch is that the special structure of the finale owes its origins to the very strange counterpart in Tchaikovsky’s First.

    Accept your caveat about DF, but I recently read his latest note on the Eighth, and thought it mighty fine. Anyway, he’s always been a good and fair colleague.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: “Purgatorial” is a very interesting word to describe that movement. And, re the finale, of course you had me rushing to listen to the finale of Tchaikovsky’s First. A guidebook that did nothing but point out where the major structural elements were in each symphony, with timings linked to an attainable audio and a brief description of what’s happening by which to confirm the spot would be helpful. As it is, I have to hunt and peck, it takes hours, and at the end of it, I don’t really know what I’ve got, much less what it’s worth. (There is one guide that goes part-way, though the narrative lay-out is a difficulty, and I have some qualms about its point of view.)

      Well, “all” will be revealed (or not) with the next post. I wrote them both before posting this one, but of course what your comments put in mind here, once again, is that there are still so many trails to follow, one could start all over again. For one, Fanning and Ottaway both refer to Tchaikovsky, and there are interesting references to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, too (McBurney also noted one in his talk). What was it Dr. Seuss wrote, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”? But, while I’m bound to tinker before the next post goes up, in the main, I’ll leave it be. I sort of like Shostakovich’s statement (even though it may have been very, very tongue in cheek): “As soon as a piece is completed the creative fever subsides; and when you see faults in the piece, sometimes major and far-reaching ones, you begin to think that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to avoid them in your future work. As for what has been written—that’s done, thank goodness.”

  3. angela

    Oh dear, I have nothing to add after following those two, other than to say I do know good, honest writing, and yours is always a pleasure (even when I have not a notion of what you speak). I am enjoying the quartet, and not because of what he wrote regarding tears to beer…the more melancholy the better for these ears. Looking forward to the reveal in part 2.
    (p.s. don’t toss the books against the wall too hard – we frown upon returning ILLS w/ broken bindings…)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: Ah, but, always, the main thing is the listening, and I’m so pleased you’re enjoying the quartet. It’s a beauty. As for the ILL books, rest assured, reason–not to mention my gratefulness for the service (and to you for putting me on to it!)–intervenes. The only book I ever threw across the room in frustration was one I own: Harold Bloom’s on Wallace Stevens. And, as to that one, I’d happily do it again!

      1. Mark Kerstetter

        Hmm, that’s really interesting. I have a book of essays on Ashbery published in 1985 and edited by Bloom. I value it very much but when I first read it I was very frustrated with Bloom because of his mania for establishing a canon – constantly repeating the same names (Stevens was one) and seeming to construct some kind of Great Poets Hierarchy.

  4. T.

    I agree with you completely:

    “It is a perception, not a fact, and what is perceived as “great” can—and often does—change over time.”

    I think listening to music is largely a subjective experience, whether one is a critic or not. One can judge on skill, yes, and expertise on music-making, or performing with an instrument, or method of playing, et al.

    The ‘greatness’ that we feel though—I think that speaks to the heart and soul, of what stirs inside you when you listen. Perhaps music moves us and touches us the same way that poetry does.


    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      T.: Beautifully stated, and I do think there’s a lot of kinship with poetry–even though the latter does use words. You remind me of something the composer John Metcalf said about poetry, that “it’s as if the meaning is between the words.” On the issue of perception, I really enjoyed the article by Christopher Gibbs on the responses to the first performances of the Seventh Symphony in the U.S., and his concluding statement that “the Seventh is always changing” is definitely a keeper for me. There’s an enormous amount that can be learned from those who’ve spent time studying music closely, yet it’s equally important to carve out a space for our own responses and impressions. The trick, I think, is neither to accept blindly received wisdom, while at the same time resisting the impulse to reject what we don’t understand, but always to remain open and to “interrogate the text.”

      1. T.

        Well said. To “close read” music is something I want to do in the future, for my own writing. Perhaps jazz, as it is close to my heart. Until then I have your blog to enjoy. Thank you so much for all of these, Susan, truly.


        A postscript—I quite like Mark Wigglesworth’s notes on the Tenth Symphony:

        “The first movement, a huge arching slow waltz that builds to a climax as inevitably as it recedes away from it is an amazing journey that, despite apparently ending where it began, has travelled an enormous distance. Structurally it is the most perfect single orchestral movement he ever wrote. Emotionally there is a tired and drained quality that reflects Akhmatova’s line: ‘How sad that there is no one else to lose, and one can weep.’ We feel the exhaustion of all who lived through the twenty-five years of Stalin’s tyranny.

        It was a regime whose brutal inexhaustibility Shostakovich portrays in the breathtaking second movement. It begins fortissimo and is followed by no fewer than fifty crescendos. There are only two diminuendos. The effect is self-explanatory. The emotion is not so much a depiction of Stalin himself, but an anger that he ever existed. In fact, such was his hold over the people, that the hysteria greeting his funeral cortege was so great that hundreds of people were crushed to death by tanks trying to keep order and protect the coffin. It is typical of Stalin that he should have continued to be responsible for people’s deaths even from beyond the grave.”

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          T.: Wigglesworth is known to be a fine musical interpreter of Shostakovich, with a deep love and respect for his work. But, while I’m hesitant to voice this in the face of that, I am bothered by his “Marks Notes” approach here. I would very much value learning what Wigglesworth is struck by in that movement, but I believe the statement “Structurally it is the most perfect single orchestral movement he ever wrote” is a conclusion, not a fact. Had I the job Kyle is suggesting, and were I brave enough to do so in a personal encounter with Wigglesworth, I would say “unh-unh” and hand it back.

          Additionally, while Wigglesworth’s use of the Ahkmatova quotation and his interpretive approach are undeniably moving, I have qualms about interpretations that tend to impose a single-line, historically-based narrative, however powerful, on a musical work. I’ll venture further into those murky waters in part 2.

          1. T.

            Sue, thanks so much for your insight. I find myself agreeing how that line comes across—you’re right, I quoted Wigglesworth because I quite liked how he put Akhmatova and Shostakovich together (she’s one of my favourite poets). Though now that you’ve pointed it out I can see what you mean about this kind of interpretation.

            Ah, but I am glad to be here, and reading along!


  5. Mark Kerstetter

    I’m laughing over Shostakovich’s comment to Glikman!

    You and I seem to do the same thing – you with music, I with visual art. I’ve been studying Brancusi lately. Why do I need to, I already love his work. It’s curiosity, I want to know more. But there is such a schism between art and the discourses on art that — even though I am well aware of the fact — it still sometimes becomes a source of minor irritation. Yet I keep going back to the books. It’s not that I think there could be a formulation for greatness (I couldn’t care less about that), but that talking and writing about art is a valuable skill in itself; merely describing a nonverbal piece can be beautiful or informative. I agree with the spirit of kylegann’s comment, though, that it’s not enough to write technically well about art. As a reader and art lover, I want to know what the work means to the writer. I want to know how it has affected their life, makes them feel, has inspired them, etc. Not an inarticulate emotional outburst, but these things should come together: linguistic skill relating to a knowledge of the art and its discourses, love for the art, and an unabashed but articulate or poetic subjective expression of what the art means to the writer, or has affected his or her life. Thanks for allowing me to take this occasion to remind myself of these things! Your writing, at its best, does all of this.

    The Borodin Quartet performance here is resplendent.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: That comment makes me laugh every time I read it. Shostakovich had quite the wit!

      I love this statement of yours: “Why do I need to, I already love his work.” And then, of course, that’s exactly why we read on, isn’t it? All of what you’ve written is so keenly observed. I don’t at all mind, in fact I appreciate, understanding a point of view–so long as the writer recognizes it is his or her point of view, and not an objective fact. On the issue of “greatness,” I’m with you there, too. I just don’t think there can be an objective standard, and I wish that were generally understood. “Great,” anyway, doesn’t tell us very much, does it?

      Which is why, despite the struggle to find the words, if one wants to “spread the news” about art, music, poetry, one loves, it’s important to continue to try. I like your guideposts: “knowledge of the art and its discourses, love for the art, and an unabashed but articulate or poetic subjective expression of what the art means to the writer, or has affected his or her life.” I’d only add that it’s important that those who are not “experts” in the discourses are able to have a place in the discussion that is valued. (For example, many of us will never be able to understand, let alone make, a statement like this, no matter how valuable it is to know: “Once again the pitch structure is modal. In melodic terms the congruent properties of the two disjunct pentachords are less clearly exploited than the fact that seven of the nine constituent tetrachords outline a diminished forth.”)

      Here, for example, is one of the most lovely responses to a performance of classical music I’ve read in a long while, written by someone after his “first Minnesota Orchestra experience” (, which, I’m sure you’re aware, was locked out of its professional home for over a year. Part of what makes this post so particularly wonderful is the outpouring that came back from the performers, starting right from the first comment: “Thank you for posting this. I mean, a huge let-me-buy-you-a-drink-next-time-you’re-at-Orchestra-Hall kind of thank you. Given the whole ugly labor dispute of the last few months, I don’t know if you can imagine how important it is for the musicians to see this kind of real-life validation for what they do. I hope this isn’t your last concert!”

      1. Mark Kerstetter

        Well, it’s the coolest thing in the world that he touched the hearts of the musicians. I love that.

        Your point that “it’s important that those who are not “experts” in the discourses are able to have a place in the discussion” is well taken. There’s no substitute for clarity and sincerity when writing a review, for example.

  6. shoreacres

    Susan, I don’t so much read your posts as I trek through them in a Graham Greene-ish sort of way, armed with a machete and just hoping to survive.

    What amazes me is that I generally find a hidden pathway that helps me make a little progress. Here, I was especially taken with your statement that “form is only a means. A compelling expression of a singular artistic vision is the end.”

    I like to think about the relationship of form to content, and here I found myself pondering our own physical form. I was as much a human being at four as I was at forty. At eighty-four, I’ll still be a human being. Remarkable changes in form will have taken place, but in the end, it will be that ever-changing form that will have allowed a singular life to have been led.

    The other thing I’ve been pondering is the use of form as protection. I spent some time reading a little more broadly tonight, articles like this from the former “Central Europe Review” (now known as “Transitions Online”). The balancing act required of these composers was remarkable. When I think of the self-discipline that’s sometimes required in discussions and reading online, I’m astonished at what they were able to accomplish. A feint here, an apparent acquiescence here, a symphony there. Truly amazing.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: You had me laughing with the Graham Greene image of whacking your way through the post. I do feel similarly when I’m whacking my way through Fanning–though I’ll have to say it’s been worth it, as he’s made numerous interesting observations along the way. Well, all I can say is, I’m pleased you’ve been willing to come whacking. You always find something that sends us on such an interesting trail (in this case cleared of brush). Here, your thoughts on the form and substance of a human life are wonderfully perceptive, and, as always, elegantly stated.

      The link you included is a great find. I can’t imagine, with all the google searches I’ve done over the course of this series, that it never appeared–but that’s google for you. Hidden treasure, now revealed. He does an excellent job of summarizing the predicament and raising up to the light those whose work has been lost or forgotten (some of the names are familiar to me, but not all). And, speaking of Fanning, I was sorry the link to the survey indicated was broken, but I’m going to see if I can find it another way.

      Well, the next post may require more than a machete, but I have tried to strew some lively observations here and there, so perhaps, if you venture in, you’ll find one and carry it forward in your marvelous way. After that, I will set that study aside (which I will say has served me admirably this winter) in hopes that spring will be arriving and, to quote John Ashbery completely out of context, “might give us–what?–some flowers soon?”

      1. shoreacres

        Just a note about that article. I didn’t surface it with Google, but with DuckDuckGo. These days, I begin searches there, and then go to Google if I’m not satisfied.

        I started exploring DuckDuckGo and Ixquick a few months ago, because their names kept coming up in discussions centered on secure search. I don’t care so much about that, but I’ve been very happy with them generally. It’s a fact that the number of results can be limited, but their reach seems to be growing as more people use them, and I often find quite interesting articles that I can’t even surface on Google with a keyword search.

  7. Anonymous

    Shostakovich and I had a wonderful relationship while I was in graduate school. I lived in a below grade garage apt with a turntable brought from Japan and one neon tetra fish which moved in his bowl to the 7th Symphony. Unfortunately I loss the fish when the creek flooded but I saved my Angel recording of the 7th. When I went to Sierra Leone in West Africa, I stayed at the City Hotel where Graham Greene sat on the upper balcony and drunk gin Ts. I did too and like him I watched the setting sun over the Atlantic.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Well, Anon, I don’t normally accept anonymous comments, but this one was too rich to resist. I can just picture that neon tetra fish . . .

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