Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10, Op. 93

by Max Derrickson

Dmitri Shostakovich     (Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, 1906; died in Moscow, 1975)


Symphony No. 10, Op. 93
1. Moderato
2. Allegro
3. Allegretto
4. Andante – Allegro

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, now widely considered to be his best, was premiered just months after Stalin’s death in 1953. Of its dark character, Shostakovich simply stated publicly that it represented the pain and grief of life, and the West, never quite knowing what information to trust from behind the wall of strangeness that was the Iron Curtain, accepted it at face value.  And such was the received wisdom about this piece until Solomon Volkov’s 1979 book, Testimony, was published – the so-called memoirs of Shostakovich as dictated to Volkov.  Testimony portrays Shostakovich as the “holy fool” who outwardly played by Stalin’s capricious rules, but subversively spoke out against the Dictator, filling his music with specific codes and musical descriptions.  It also challenged most of what the West thought it knew about one of the 20th Century’s greatest composers.

Testimony’s authenticity, however, has been both validated and seriously refuted several times over, and we’re left close to where we began with Shostakovich – not knowing what information to trust.  In Testimony’s aftermath, however, it has become difficult not to read more meaning into Shostakovich’s music, and this is especially true in his Tenth.  Recent scholarship has uncovered several unmistakable cryptographs in Shostakovich’s Tenth, but it’s still baffling as to why they’re there, or what they might mean.  Some contend that it is enough to say that the Symphony is a masterpiece on its musical merits alone.

The first movement, indeed, seems to paint the picture of the observer of a devastated landscape – perhaps actual or perhaps psychological.  The tonally ambiguous motto that is first heard in the basses becomes the germ which reaches throughout the whole work.  The entire first movement gives an emotionally tragic message – ruined, even.  Some of its more exquisite moments seem to emerge from beyond mortal inspiration, such as the quiet, tonal bridges between sections which imply prayer, or rather, to say again how Shostakovich responded to a question about whether he believed in God: “No,” he said, “and I am very sorry about it.”  The ending is particularly haunting, when the piccolos play a high-pitched dirge over the hollow accompaniment of horns and timpani.  Few moments are as bone chilling.

As for codes, first there is a musical reference to a song that Shostakovich had previously set to a poem by Pushkin, “What is my name to you?” which precedes the beginnings of a drawn out musical signature of Shostakovich’s name.  This signature won’t appear fully, however, until the third movement.

The second movement is a hell-fire scherzo.
[. . .]

The third movement is a deformed waltz, pensive and troubled.
[. . .]

Finally, Shostakovich completes his own musical signature in this movement – spelled as “D – Eb – C – B” (or, DSCH – in German musical pitches, spelling part of the German transliteration of Shostakovich’s name).   This signature can be heard easily in the winds just when the tambourine begins to play.  Near the end, after a glimpse backwards to the Symphony’s opening motto, the two signatures are played simultaneously.  The allusions to death, the student, and to Shostakovich himself, lead us to a puzzling place in this work.  But it seems we were being led to this place all along, so that a Finale proper could wrap everything up tidily.

The last movement finale, however, is not exactly “proper.”  Beginning with a ruminative oboe solo, the orchestra explores a territory somewhere between the first and third movement’s psychological landscape.  Soon, however, it unexpectedly changes character and breaks into a kind of sarcastic Gopak, or folk dance, which has all the qualities of a simple-minded buffoon – it shows up at the wrong time, is clumsy, and misses the point of everything.
[. . .]

If nothing else, the Finale is absolutely thrilling, and a breathtaking way to end one of the 20th Century’s great symphonies.