Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 Program Notes
From the early 1930s when he consolidated power, until his death in 1953, facts were changeable at the whim of Stalin and his cronies, and often telegraphed by the newspaper, Pravda (Truth). In a terrifying 1936 editorial entitled “Muddle, Not Music,” Shostakovich came under attack for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. (Perhaps the plot’s infidelity and a sex scene offended the prudish Stalin - one year earlier, the New York Sun had called Lady Macbeth “pornophony.”) The danger for Shostakovich was very real: thousands of intellectuals, artists and others were purged, dying in Siberian work-camps, or murdered by government agents.
By the late 1940s, Shostakovich’s renown lent him some elite privileges, including a large city apartment and a country house. Stalin himself called in 1948 to check that everything was ok. No one was truly safe Even high Party members could be swept away by a new wave of denunciations. Stalin died in March 1953, and Shostakovich composed this symphony in the following months, in the political and cultural thaw.
The first movement develops as if hesitant about its melancholic waltz transitioning to an Allegro section (a Classical symphonic model): it does not, instead eliding into various woodwind solos and growing in volume. At the movement’s center, the full orchestra plays over the opening material, this time like a grand, totalitarian architectural edifice. In the coda, two piccolos play high over soft strings, one disappears, and there’s a roll of distant thunder, perhaps echoing Berlioz’s Scene in the Country from Symphonie fantastique.
Shostakovich described the second movement’s march as a portrait of Stalin - stern and relentless. He probably never got to read 1984, but Big Brother as described by George Orwell is a virtually contemporaneous (1949) portrait of a dictator.
We return to 3/4 time for the third movement, a kind of Night Music in the vein of Mahler’s late symphonies. For the most part, it alternates its melodic material like a Classical or Romantic symphonic Scherzo form, but with two other musical motives. (To return to Berlioz, we could call them idée fixes.) One represents his name. The other is a muse, Azerbaijani composer and pianist, and former student, Elmira Nazirova. Using a similar German note-name solfege practice familiar to Bach and others who insert names or words into music, he turned DSCH into D, E-flat, C, B-natural, and Elmira into E-A-E-D-A. To Elmira, he wrote “I thought about you a great deal, and so I decided to turn your name into music.” Her theme, first introduced by solo horn, is also the opening notes of Mahler’s Song of the Earth. (Some musicologists claim the two were romantically involved, but says she was happily married to her husband.)
The finale’s beginning phrase, of cellos and basses, alone, will return later, in other forms. What follows are heartfelt solo wind meditations over the lonely atmosphere of softly held strings. These transform into a reveille figure, and, as if the sun has risen, a vigorously sparkling Allegro begins. There are episodes of traditional-sounding Russian dances, but sadness lurks, and after the loudest of the DSCH motives, we return to the melancholic opening music. It gives way to a toy-solder bassoon march, then boisterous clarinet.
It’s an open question whether the joy of the symphony’s final minutes represent ironic, mandatory fun, or whether it is Shostakovich’s affirmation of life. That it could be both is testament to Shostakovich’s great artistry.
Born: September 25, 1906, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Died: August 9, 1975, Moscow, Russia