In 1975, Arnold Schoenberg wrote of both Sibelius and Shostakovich, “I feel they have the breath of symphonists.” [Fanning 1] That “symphonic breath,” as I perceive it when I listen to Shostakovich’s symphonies, is built out of the simplest of elements: small cells of notes that, together with subtle shifts in rhythm, timbre, harmony, dynamics, and controlled mastery of orchestration, create resonant contrasts in mood and, in the best of his symphonies, including the Tenth, a compelling—and thoroughly human—whole.
First Movement (Moderato): The first movement of the Tenth Symphony, in sonata form, is the longest of the four. While Shostakovich may have bemoaned his failure to include “a real symphonic allegro” [Fanning 77], the movement does have the requisite beginning (exposition), middle (development), and end (recapitulation), as well as a coda. Of the “missing” allegro, Michael Steinberg wrote:
It seems to me that Shostakovich’s lament is about not producing a textbook sonata-allegro that he should not have written anyway. Here, as in many of his other symphonic first movements—I think particularly of nos. 4 through 8—he has planned and built something unorthodox, but totally in harmony with his material and his expressive intentions. [Steinberg 566]
Exposition. The exposition introduces three unadorned themes, the character of which “is so unencumbered by ornament or inessential detail that it takes on a virtually archetypal quality.” [Fanning 8] The themes include a pair of rising three note figures, introduced on cello and bass at the movement’s start (“first theme”); a soulful phrase introduced on clarinet (“clarinet theme”) (~Spotify 2:24), and a close-stepping dance introduced on flute (“flute theme”) (~Spotify 6:05).
Fanning wrote, “the movement is a fine illustration of the truism that great music depends more on what happens to the themes than on the themes themselves.” [Fanning 9] Hugh Ottaway deemed the opening passage, on strings alone, with its slow unfolding from the first theme, “an object lesson . . . in how to achieve an almost static, expectant effect while keeping the music in motion.” [Ottaway 47] Certainly, for those who think “bombast” when they think of Shostakovich, this passage has to be one of many curatives.
Although the themes are recognizably distinct, they emerge organically, one from the other, and reappear in various guises throughout the movement. The strings slowly wind the clarinet theme upward to a climax, gathering in winds and brass. At the apex, horns sound the first three notes of the opening theme, this time inverted (~Spotify 4:21), signaling a return to the clarinet theme on which the passage began. A flute enters with its dance (~Spotify 6:05), and strings, winds, and brass (~Spotify 6:36) alter the color and mood as the music builds and dies away.
Development, Recapitulation, and Coda. David Hurwitz wrote of the movement’s development section that, “It is a true development in the classical sense. “ [Hurwitz 126] I can’t help but suspect that the “classical sense” Hurwitz noted formed a basis for some in their praise for the symphony’s “perfection of form.” While I question whether that’s an appropriate measure for assessing the work, where the development begins does provide a helpful aid in listening to how Shostakovich handles the movement’s themes. (It’s not clear to me where the recapitulation begins—there seems to be disagreement even among the cognoscenti. [Fanning 28-29])
The development is introduced on a soft roll of timpani (~Spotify 8:36), throughout which “every move involves at least two of the three themes.” [Ottaway 47]. The first theme (now on contrabassoons) and clarinet theme (now on bassoons) reappear, this time intertwined. The orchestral texture increases until, on a crash of cymbals, the flute theme is given to the trumpets as the first theme sounds deep in the strings. (~Spotify 10:22) The intensity continues to increase, culminating in a sustained scream high in the winds. (~Spotify 12:17) Horns call out an inverted three-note passage from the first theme, and cymbals crash (~Spotify 12:20).
The music shifts; the strings progress steadily toward a final climax (~Spotify 13:06), this time shedding tension and opening to the light (~Spotify 14:00). As the climax fades, a clarinet winds upward. (~Spotify 15:10) A second clarinet joins the first as partner in a delicate flute theme duet. (~Spotify 15:35) Strings and winds take up the dance, then strings alone, elongating the line and slowing the pace. A timpani ushers in the coda (~Spotify 18:11), and the first theme sounds on winds, then deep in the strings. Two piccolos emerge from a caressing scrim of strings and give poignant voice to the clarinet theme. (~Spotify 20:19) On a final sounding of the first theme on lower strings and a lone piccolo’s mournful call, the movement dies away.
I was struck by David Fanning’s description of the movement overall:
The processes of X/1 [Tenth Symphony/First Movement] are, it would seem reasonable to suggest, allied to an overall sense of reflecting on, rather than acting out, tragic experience—or, less simplistically, since it is a pre-eminently dynamic process, one of progressively approaching reality through reflection, absorbing its meaning as well as its sensation. [Fanning 37; italics mine]
This is music that doesn’t simply emote, but also thinks—music that doesn’t merely describe the impact of experience, but also reflects on it.
Second Movement (Allegro): The second movement is as brutal as it is short. Our ears are pinned back and pummeled without relief. The movement starts full throttle and contains “some 50 crescendos, only two diminuendos, only one general drop to piano, and no relaxation from the fast opening tempo.” [Fanning 39]
It’s fascinating to look at the trajectory in interpretation of this movement over time. In the liner notes to the 1964 Mravinsky recording, Frederick Youens described it as having “the effect of a gigantic whirlwind overtaking a community.” [Fanning 47, n. 1] In 1978, Hugh Ottaway wrote of it:
One Soviet view is that this music “expresses again the inexhaustible forces of life.” Others, also Russian, have interpreted it as a “black march”—“the onslaught of the powers of darkness and death.” Certainly, the sense of exhilaration is shot through with something sinister, and it is possible to feel that the music faces in two directions, the one affirmative, the other menacing. [Ottaway 47-48]
The publication date of Ottaway’s BBC Music Guide is significant, for it precedes by a year the appearance of Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, purported, but never proved, to be Shostakovich’s deathbed memoir. Testimony states, “The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking.” [Fay 4756, n. 14] Laurel Fay took the issue head-on in her Shostakovich biography: “I have found no corroboration that such a specific program was either intended or perceived at the time of composition and first performance.” [Fay 4756, n. 14]
Yet ever since its publication, Volkov’s claim for the second movement has inserted itself into the commentary, often displacing independent thought. Steinberg didn’t quite succumb, but nonetheless, with his “supposed Stalin portrait,” he relied on it as shorthand. [Steinberg 567] Fanning seemed to have felt the need to address it, though his approach was to assess the claim vis-à-vis the music’s structure. I’m not able to embrace his conclusions, but he made clear he was interpreting and has an interesting take:
The dual process of intensification (by register and instrumentation) and constraint (by assertion of modal underpinning) is about as close a structural metaphor to the “musical portrait of Stalin” [quoting from Testimony] as could be imagined, and it is this which elevates the conception above the generalized battle imagery which supplies the gestural quality of invention. [Fanning 44]
Hurwitz went further, flatly rendering the Volkov interpretation as fact: “The most famous movement in the symphony, this is Shostakovich’s ‘portrait of Stalin’ . . .”. [Hurwitz 128]
Richard Taruskin, in a characteristically provocative essay, Casting a Great Composer as a Fictional Hero, took Volkov-based interpretations of the movement to task:
But the legend of the Tenth Symphony’s reception in 1953, by which [Joseph] Horowitz sets such store—“a communal rite,” he calls it, “an act of purgation, a national catharsis”—is entirely a post-Testimony fable. It is based on the dubious revelation, which no one had previously suspected either in Russia or in the West, that the wild tornado of a second movement was intended as a portrait of the just-deceased Stalin. [Taruskin 327]
Elizabeth Wilson, while acknowledging the historical circumstances under which Shostakovich was composing, provided a welcome corrective:
The Tenth Symphony is often read as the composer’s commentary on the recent Stalinist era. But as so often in Shostakovich’s art, the exposition of external events is counter-opposed to the private world of his innermost feelings. [Wilson 305]
For me, the chief problem is this: even if understood only as an interpretation, the Volkov statement reduces art to artifact, freezing music in history. The glory of great music, to my mind, lies in its abstraction—in its power of vital, vivid expression without resort to words. (Even works with an explicit program—like John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary, or song—like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde—convey meaning beyond that the text conveys on its own.) It is through its abstraction, which is necessarily indeterminate and open-ended, that music extends its expressive reach beyond boundaries of place and time.
Third Movement (Allegretto): While the second movement might be felt as a relentless, inhuman assault, in the third, to borrow Steinberg’s words, “something human stirs.” [Steinberg 567]
The third movement, in a combination of sonata and rondo form, contains two distinct, contrasting themes. The first theme, which opens the movement, is introduced on violins and takes its cue from the First Violin Concerto’s scherzo (composed 1947-48; premiered 1955), though vastly slowed down (“violin theme”). The second theme (“DSCH’s theme”) is built on Shostakovich’s “signature,” DSCH*, and marks its “first overt appearance in Shostakovich’s music.” [Fanning 50] It’s as if Shostakovich has walked into his music, not only as its composer, but responding to and thinking about what he’s composed. Of course that’s in my imagination and nothing more, but I like the thought of following him through his signature and discovering where he goes.
DSCH’s theme first waltzes in on winds in the company of timpani and triangle. (~Spotify 0:57) The violins take up the theme, then withdraw, leaving it to a flute and two clarinets. (~Spotify 1:52) The violin theme returns, first on strings, then on lower winds (~Spotify 2:13), and DSCH’s theme tiptoes in on lower register strings (~Spotify 2:53). The strings cycle upward, as if about to resume the waltz, but a pair of horn calls interrupts.
The horn calls are the first of twelve and mark the beginning of the movement’s development. (~Spotify 3:10) Lower register strings reprise the symphony’s first theme. (~Spotify 3:33) After more horn calls, at the first interspersed with delicate filigrees on winds, later accompanied by plucked strings, a softly vibrating tam-tam ushers in the recapitulation. (~Spotify 6:10) The violin theme sounds on English horn, an oboe follows suit, and the music bursts open as the orchestra waltzes to DSCH’s theme. (~Spotify 7:25) The waltz turns frantic; more horn calls sound, and the music winds down into the coda. (~Spotify 9:53) With a final, distant horn call and whimpered repetitions of DSCH’s theme on flute and piccolo, the movement draws to a close.
The interrupting horn call has been the subject of much discussion, and interpretations abound. Among others, Fanning reported that “Russian commentators have interpreted [the horn call] as a ‘distant friend’ or as ‘impassive eternal Nature,’” but Fanning quickly dismissed that idea:
The idea of pastoral association rings false: nature-representation is, along with religious aspiration, one of the few Mahlerian archetypes conspicuous by its absence from Shostakovich’s music. [Fanning 51-52]
Fanning pointed instead to “a much more significant resemblance to a passage in Mahler,” the “obbligato horn” interruptions in the third movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. [Fanning 52] He also noted the “striking similarities” to the horn theme in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, but cautioned:
None of these associations, however, seems clear enough to be definitive, or even to help specify what meaning could be attached to the idea. How convenient if EAEDA could be shown to be a musical signature complementing DSCH. [Fanning 52]
I picture a team of musicologists with their microscopes reading Fanning and poring over the score. “Eureka,” one may have cried, “I’ve found it!!”
Though EAEDA (“E—A[la]—E[mi]—R[re]—A”)* is now thought by many to refer to Elmira Nazirova, a student of Shostakovich’s with whom he had a passionate, if one-sided, correspondence for a time [Wilson 303-304], Hurwitz dripped with scorn:
Aside from the alphabetical and linguistic contortions necessary to substantiate this theory, it demonstrates with singular point the worthlessness of so much Shostakovich scholarship. Even if this motive does stand for Elmira, what does it add to our understanding of the music’s expressive meaning? The answer is: Nothing. [Hurwitz 130]
I don’t agree. For one, there’s an Elmira connection resonant with possibilities that Hurwitz didn’t mention. In one of his letters to Nazirova, Shostakovich wrote that he’d heard Mahler’s horn theme from the first song of Das Lied von der Erde “in a dream.” [Wilson 304]
. . . some twenty days later Shostakovich wrote again to tell her he had transcribed the theme to use the musical letters of her name in the symphony’s third movement. Subsequently he informed Nazirova of the specific associations that Mahler attributed to this horn motif, namely the shriek of a giant monkey calling from the cemetery, instilling fear in the town’s inhabitants. [Wilson 304]
The temptation to be avoided here is interpretation of the musical choice on narrow programmatic grounds—so, for example, the monkey becomes a coded reference to the dead Stalin and the habits of fear he instilled so indelibly that they continued beyond the grave. While we needn’t reject that possibility as one of many, reducing music to a linear historical narrative should be avoided, no matter how compelling it may seem. Rather, let the music speak, rich as it is with associations, and allow those associations to resonate and multiply, extending outward, infinite in their reach. Music is open; we should not close it down.
Fanning summed up the interpretative quandary and offered an elegant way to think about it, introducing an additional Das Lied comparison of his own. In the essay Shostakovich and His Pupils, Fanning wrote:
Here, near the end of the [Tenth Symphony’s third] movement, the two characters [DSCH and EAEDA] presented in isolation earlier on, are at last together in time, yet still apart in registral space. Again the metaphor can easily be elaborated and indeed tipped into vulgarity if confined to literalism. To broaden the focus somewhat, then: the simultaneous sense of proximity and distance is both intensified and generalized by the harmonic reference . . . to the end of “Der Abschied” from Shostakovich’s favorite Mahler score, Das Lied von der Erde. In this environment it feels that the horn motif has finally come home, while the flute/piccolo line is still disembodied. This is a wonderful way of balancing out the tensions of a movement whose role in the overall symphonic scheme is subtle and profound . . . . Once again the personal and the musical are mutually supportive. [Fanning/Bard 290; italics mine]
Shostakovich’s music is many-layered, after all. What’s to say he couldn’t have been walking through his music, as through his life, ruminating on and giving expression to matters large and small—not to mention reveling in the intellectual puzzle-making that composing itself involves?
Fourth Movement (Andante-Allegro): We’ve left DSCH hanging on a whimper, but yet to come is the fourth and final movement. It’s another in sonata form, with two themes. The movement begins deep in the strings; plaintive woodwinds enter on languid lines. A clarinet sidles in and suggests a shift in fits and starts. (~Spotify 4:20) The first theme leaps in, a rollicking dance that emerges from the dark. (~Spotify 5:55) The second theme arrives, another dance, a rustic counter to the first, soon carried aloft on winds and horns. (~Spotify 7:12) The music’s texture thickens; an undercurrent of threat enters the mix. Whirling woodwinds, marching strings, and punching brass propel the music to a fearful peak; at the climax, the full orchestra sounds DSCH’s four notes. (~Spotify 10:23) Cymbals crash, the bass drum sounds, the tam-tam reverberates, and the music winds down with quiet interjections of DSCH along the way. The first theme comes back on a cheerful, clowning bassoon. (~Spotify 12:02) Members of the orchestra join in, singly and in groups, forming up into an exuberant parade. DSCH strides forward on its four fine notes (~Spotify 13:35) as the music prances toward an exhilarating close.
At least that’s how I hear it. Here is Fanning on the movement’s closing music:
The side drum and DSCH join in the celebrations, the swirling woodwind lines from the second movement are added, [theme] A goes over the top, a fully diatonic home-key theme B emerges for the first time, Neapolitan harmony, DSCH motifs and theme B all merrily swing the hero along to the uncomplicated conclusion, capped by the scale/glissando of the end of the second movement. He loved Big Brother. [Fanning 69; parenthetical citations to the score omitted; italics mine]
Fanning made an interesting case for his conclusion, but my ears are unable—or perhaps more to the point unwilling—to agree.
As part of his analysis, Fanning noted:
Until recently, the supposed weakness of many of Shostakovich’s finales has been almost as much an institutionalized criticism in the West as the banality of Mahler and the naïvety of Bruckner used to be. . . . In recent years there has been an increasing willingness of Western commentators . . . to admit to the possibility of ironic intention . . . . in ostensibly fulfilling the demands of Socialist Realism by outward cheerfulness, Shostakovich lets the authorities have their poisoned cake and eat it. . . . For the moment it is sufficient to observe that none of Shostakovich’s finales should have its character taken for granted. [Fanning 58]
The Fifth Symphony is certainly a case in point. Yet to my ears, as music—even if understood ironically—the Fifth’s finale continues to fall flat. In contrast, the Tenth Symphony’s finale does work musically, at least for me. So what explains it—if an explanation can be found?
Fanning made the point, even with regard to his own interpretation:
Given that the notes on the printed page are the same, how can such divergent perceptions be verified, or at least realistically elaborated on, using the evidence of the score. To a large extent, of course, they cannot, since the object of most worthwhile analytical or critical study is not the notation but its resonance in the mind of the observer, which is partly dependent on individual and culturally determined sympathies, whether acknowledged or not. . . . In this chapter the interpretation of the finale of the Tenth Symphony is a personal one; and although it is based on the evidence of the score, the bridge between the two is admittedly less secure than in the previous movements. Everyone is free to build different sorts of bridges to different conclusions. [Fanning 60]
In my case, what I bring to listening to the Tenth’s finale is likely much more concerned with what I want for Shostakovich, rather than with trying to ascertain what he may have meant. What I want for him, in the moment of composing the close to the finale—even if it wasn’t so in the moment before and wouldn’t be so in moment after—is to have felt the joy that he has given me.
We made it through.
We are still here.
Postscript: I hope you’ve found something of interest in coming along on my journey through the Shostakovich symphonies so far. I may or may not write further on this subject; I’ll have to see. But I’ll certainly be continuing to explore his music, and I hope you will, too.
*For information on how the notes are assigned to the initials, click here.
For Seeking Shostakovich: Listening to the Tenth Symphony, Part 1 of 2, click here.
The orchestration of the Tenth Symphony, in E Minor, includes “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.”
Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony
Second Movement begins ~ 27:50
Third Movement begins ~ 32:05
Fourth Movement begins ~ 44:46
If you’re interested in listening to some of the musical quotations analysts cite, four may be found on Spotify here, together with the movements to which they relate, along with a “bonus track”:
1) First Movement, clarinet theme (~Spotify 2:24): Steinberg [Steinberg 565] notes identification of this theme as a quotation from Mahler’s Second Symphony (Urlicht). Compare the theme with the words at ~Spotify 1:04: “Der Mensch liegt in größter Not! (Man lies in greatest need!)” Also on YouTube here at ~1:08].
2) Third Movement, first theme: compare opening of the First Violin Concerto scherzo. [Hurwitz 129]
3) Third Movement horn call: compare the horn “interruptions” in the third movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. [Fanning 52]
4) Third Movement, horn call (~Spotify 3:12): compare the horn motif in Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow) from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. [Wilson 304; Fanning 52]
5) (Bonus Track) Fourth Movement: In his comment to the previous post, “Seeking Shostakovich: Thinking About The Tenth Symphony (Part 1 of 2),” David Nice wrote, “my hunch is that the special structure of the finale owes its origins to the very strange counterpart in Tchaikovsky’s First.” It’s fascinating, not to mention illuminating, to listen to the two finales side-by-side, and you can do so at the Spotify link.
Credits: The images in the post may be found here (Shostakovich at Piano), here (DSCH), and here (Shostakovich with Rostropovich, Oistrakh, and Britten). The quotations in the text are from the sources linked in the text, together with the page number (or in the case of Fay, the Kindle location number) on which the quote appears. I had no access to a score and relied primarily on Hurwitz for identification of structural elements and as an aid to identifying instrumentation, though any errors are of course my own.