Dmitri Shostakovich

Symphony No. 10

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 50–55 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
Time of Creation: probably 1953
World Premiere: December 17, 1953 (Leningrad)

Table of Contents

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 in 5 Sentences

The Symphony No. 10 is Dmitri Shostakovich’s first major composition after the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The work has therefore often been interpreted as a “reckoning” with the Stalin regime, under which Shostakovich had already suffered since 1936, but especially since the premiere of his sarcastic, pseudo-heroic 9th Symphony in 1945. While this interpretation cannot be proven beyond doubt, it is popular nonetheless: for example, Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony has often been described as program music in which Stalin, Shostakovich, and Shostakovich’s close confidante Elmira Nəzirova are musically portrayed (see the “Highlights” below). Symphony No. 10 is one of Shostakovich’s most frequently performed symphonies, along with Symphonies Nos. 5, 7, and 9.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10

Highlight 1: Beginning of the first movement – in "lurking position"

Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony begins very somberly. Often this beginning has been interpreted as a musical embodiment of Shostakovich’s fear of the regime. In any case, dark timbres create an oppressive, threatening effect. It’s as if you’re expecting something that you’re unsure exactly what it looks like:

Highlight 2: "Stalin Theme"

In the second movement there is a musical theme that is supposed to stand for the dictator Stalin. At least, that is how several prominent musicologists and conductors see it, including Kurt Sanderling, for example:

Highlight 3: Third movement – Shostakovich and Elmira

The third movement then adds musical motifs representing Shostakovich and his confidante Elmira Nəzirova. Shostakovich recreates the names with the note names: “His” motive is composed of the (German-designated) notes D, Es (sounds like “S”, English: E-flat), C and H (English: B) (for Dmitri Schostakowitsch – you hear it in the video at 28:33 in flute and oboe), while the Elmira motive is composed of a mixture of German- and Italian-designated notes: E-La-Mi-Re-A (you hear it in the video at 30:54 in the horn). In the course of the third movement, the two motives are united:

Highlight 4: ...a "happy ending?"

After all the gloom, Shostakovich ends his 10th Symphony with a radiant, frenzied conclusion. One can interpret this ending as sheer sarcasm (the “put-on” positive final message expected of artists of the Soviet regime). Or maybe…

… as genuine joy over Stalin’s death? Do you recognize what the timpani “hammers” into us again just before the end (52:07), lest we forget? It is the “Shostakovich notes” D, E-flat, C and B (see “Highlight 3”). Stalin is dead – Shostakovich is alive:

3 Questions and Answers about Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10

Question 1: Who premiered Shostakovich's 10th Symphony?

The first performance was given by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. The conductor was Yevgeny Mravinsky, one of the most important conductors of the Soviet Union.

Question 2: What did Shostakovich experience between 1945 and 1953?

Shostakovich was a victim of the so-called “anti-formalist purges.” In the course of this, he lost his teaching positions in Moscow and Leningrad, for example. His personal situation improved only when Stalin died in 1953.

Question 3: Who was Elmira Nəzirova?

Elmira Nəzirova was an Azerbaijani composer and pianist who was in close correspondence with Dmitri Shostakovich in 1953. Today it is assumed that Shostakovich felt deep affection for Nəzirova (which, however, remained unrequited), whereupon he worked the Elmira motif (see above, “Highlight 2”) into his 10th Symphony. That this motif was based on Elmira Nəzirova remained a secret between Shostakovich and Nəzirova for almost forty years. Only in 1990 did Nəzirova make the secret public.

2 Recommended Recordings of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10

Recording 1: WDR Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov (video production, 2005)

Semyon Bychkov’s Shostakovich interpretations are simply fantastic. The way he brings out the individual timbres from Shostakovich’s score here…wow. And the WDR Sinfonieorchester gladly accepts Bychkov’s powerful leadership:

Recording 2: hr-Sinfonieorchester, Stanisław Skrowaczewski (live, 2013)

A legend conducts here. The 90 (!) year old Stanisław Skrowaczewski, longtime music director of the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra and world famous for a reference recording of Ravel’s Boléro, whips the hr-Sinfonieorchester through Shostakovich’s Tenth with a verve that inspires:

1 Quote about Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10

A picture of madness.

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