Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Opus 93

Dimitri Shostakovich ​

A work of pessimistic optimism.

Statement from The Soviet Composer’s Union

After the rough, oppressive hand of Stalin had cracked down on Shostakovich twice (the first in 1936, which condemned him for writing “muddle instead of music, ”and most severely in 1948) the composer stayed relatively quiet. He feared for his life, for very good reasons. His Ninth Symphony had been censured. When the juggernaut Zhdanov Purge was unleashed, the composer dutifully and wisely produced little bonbons, which would not be inoffensive to the doctrines of Soviet Realism. Thanks to this controlling artistic influence, Russia was flooded with mediocre scores “camouflaged by pompous patriotic programs and with the persistent meddling of incompetent bureaucrats in the creative process.”  (Shostakovich: A Life)

Andre Zhdanov was a party leader known for his brutality and commitment to “proper Soviet music” which would only be understandable and uplifting to the Soviet people. Shostakovich, speaking of the Ninth had noted, “ It is a merry little piece. Musicians will love to play it, and critics will delight in blasting it.” He was right.  Stalin was furious and offended. Shostakovich explained,  “I couldn’t write an apotheosis to Stalin, I simply couldn’t. But I did depict Stalin in my next symphony.” (Shostakovich: Testimony)

In 1953, after hearing that Josef Stalin died on March 5, Shostakovich was elated. He had not composed in the symphonic genre since the 1948 denunciation.  Renewed by the thaw and freedom, he immediately began to continue his work on his next symphony, Number Ten at his dacha at Komorovo, near Leningrad.  Number Ten was totally new: sketches had been secreted away for years in his desk. It premiered in Leningrad in December of that year.

Now flaunting individualism, Shostakovich had a field day with his personal musical monogram, which appears at several points in this work.  This monogram refers to the letters DSCH, which are represented musically as the notes D, E-flat, C and B. DSCH, is derived directly from the composer’s name in German. He had also fitted this motto into other works as a defiant voice.  His Violin Concerto, the String Quartets Opus 4, Opus 83 and Symphony No. 5 all contain the initials. The practice of transcribing words into musical letters actually began in the Baroque period when composers (including J.S. Bach) included their names or other people into their musical works.

The first movement is extensive. It opens quietly and builds gradually into breathtaking climaxes which ebb and return, all moving in a single basic moderato tempo.  “In this, there are more slow tempi and lyrical moments than dramatic, heroic, and tragic,” Shostakovich commented. A first theme based on a six-note motto emerges in celli and basses. After two measures there is a silence. Gradually, the brooding idea inflates to huge proportions. After this statement, for the first time in the symphony, Shostakovich turns to the winds.  A clarinet sings the second theme. The third theme is given to the flute, displaying a diabolical, nervous little waltz in its low register, over pizzicato accompaniment from the strings. Although Shostakovich once had an idea to use sonata form, the scope of his thought could not be totally contained in that structure. The eventual structure is more similar to a huge arch marked by the most massive climax imaginable—a true orchestral panic. The inverted motto accented by the tam-tam suspended cymbals lead a massive crescendo and clarinets scream in their high register. A recap and coda complete the movement with a single piccolo having the last word.

The second movement, a short scherzo, is highly concentrated, impacting furious statement, which Shostakovich considered to be a “musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking.” The fury is wild, loud and unceasing. Shostakovich knew exactly what he was doing. “Music illuminates a person through and through…even half-mad Stalin, a beast and a butcher, instinctively sensed that about music.  That is why he feared and hated it” (From Shostakovich’s Testimony).

A riveting, perpetual mometum drives the heartbeat, and against this the orchestration includes roaring brass, winds at the top of their voices, and vicious, unrelenting percussion. Fierce crescendi on single tones speak consistently to the violence of Stalin’s personality. A piano/pianissimo section before the final blast prefaces his ending.

The third movement finds the composer turning inward, writing in a gentle style. On August 10, 1953, the composer wrote to Elmira Nazirova, his lover and former composition student, “[I] heard the third movement in a dream and remembered it.”  Six weeks later on September 17 he mentioned to her that the horn theme was the musical transcription of her name. It was based on a song from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, titled “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” and the composer suggested, ”this might constitute an interesting topic for musicological research.” Musicologist Paul Serotsky put his mind to that idea, and concluded, “The five tones are E-A-E-D-A. Shostakovich’s code cunningly uses the C major tonic sol-fa (now using a combination of French and German note names) for the middle three letters. Making that further substitution gives you E-La-Moi-Re-A, which spells Elmira!”

Strings softly tiptoe into the third movement. Two major ideas are featured: one from the composer’s name DSCH first proclaimed by the flutes, and the other theme based on the tones signifying Elmira. The two ideas converse with each other. Like lovers, the themes draw together closer and closer throughout the movement. A soft horn call summons flute and piccolo to declaim, rather hesitantly, the DSCH motto at the close.

The fourth movement returns to the more public side of the composer. Its orchestration was completed on October 25, 1953.  Previous to that, Shostakovish went to Leningrad and played a four-hand arrangement.   “It would be great if they (the orchestra) could play it as well as we do!” the composer commented.  The music begins Andante with unison strings and a quizzical, wandering oboe solo, with commentary from flute and bassoon. A rip-roaring Allegro follows. Woodwinds introduce a rough Russian dance (a Gopak, referencing Stalin’s Georgian homeland) appears in the strings.

This section is stuffed with quotes from earlier material, starting with the opening six-note idea from the first movement.  As its centerpiece there is a blast of the DSCH acronym from trumpet and trombone, smashing cymbals and a “huge whack on bass drum and tam-tam”(David Hurwitz Shostakovich Symphonies and Concertos). The recap recalls the introduction; a bassoon pumps out the opening theme of the allegro; and we find ourselves in a summation of previously heard ideas before the DSCH motive triumphantly seals Opus 93 in an optimistic conclusion.

At first, public and critical reactions were mixed to Number Ten.  “The symphony was characterized as gloomy and pessimistic; the tragedy of a lonely personality …a sensation of pain and suffering verging on hysteria.” (Orlov: Symphonies of Shostakovich, quoted in A History of Russian-Soviet Music by James Bakst) Aram Khachaturian, however, had a ringing endorsement; “This was a new step toward the affirmation of the high principles of realism in Soviet symphonic work. “ For his part, Shostakovich explained to the Union of Composers in March and April of 1954 when asked if Opus 93 had a program. “I wanted to convey human feelings and passions. Let them listen and decide for themselves,” Shostakovich said. Within a year the symphony had successful foreign premieres in New York and London. Symphony No. 10 was unstoppable.

The last ISO performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 was in May 2012, conducted by Krzysztof Urbański.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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