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]
Whatever 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?
Fanning 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.
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.
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.