Shostakovich: (Almost) everything you need to know about his symphonies

From celebrating the Soviet regime to trying to break free, Shostakovich's symphonies are symbolic of a tormented man, a prisoner of his own contradictions.

Shostakovich: (Almost) everything you need to know about his symphonies
Dmitri Shostakovich, © Getty / Heritage Images

With fifteen symphonies to his name, impossible to say that Dmitri Shostakovich was a lazy man! Particularly given that his Symphony no.1 was written when only 19 years old... Born during the Russian Revolution, the composer was obligated to conform to the ideals of the Soviet regime: his music must be patriotic and serve the propaganda. 

A seemingly model student, Shostakovich was in fact anything but. His desire for freedom is persistent, and his music, hidden under a thin veil of humour, is a constant reminder of this desire. Despite several clashes with censorship, Shostakovich nonetheless became the official composer of the Soviet regime and a Communist Party member in September 1960.

Portraying Soviet glory through music...

Praising the regime and its dictators: this was the mission assigned to the official composers. Shostakovich complied from his very first works. In 1927, a second symphony was commissioned to celebrate the ten years of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Lenin to power. The work finishes with a choral passage, singing the words of Alexandre Bezymenski, figurehead of the Bolchevik doctrine. 

Though each of Shostakovich's symphonies are marked by the events of the Soviet era, three in particular, almost programmatic in nature, make specific references, as evinced in their movement titles. The Symphony no.11 reflects the events of the 1905 Revolution, whilst the Symphony no.12 depicts the revolution of 1917. Finally, the Symphony no.13 evokes the terrible Jewish massacre near the Babi Yar ravine in 1941.

…but not without a hint of irony! The two faces of Shostakovich

If his symphonies honour the USSR, if at least ostensibly, the composer's music maintained nonetheless a certain duality. "Even in the most official works, Shostakovich composed a dissonant and almost unpleasant sound", explains musicologist André Lischke. "When describing a work he had just composed, he would say one thing whilst musically describing another, using the notes". 

Roumains brandissant des portraits de Staline à Bucarest dans les années 1950
Roumains brandissant des portraits de Staline à Bucarest dans les années 1950, © Getty / Sovfoto / Universal Images Group

Nowhere is this clearer than in his Symphony no.5. On the surface, it met all the criteria defined of a typical Soviet music. Light, melodic, and tonal. However, behind this public mask lies only irony and parody. The composer mocks himself, humiliated, submitted and forced to sing the praise of the Stalin regime.  

At the end of the war Shostakovich abandoned the symphonic genre. He would only return to it eight years later following the death of Stalin. The Scherzo of Shostakovich's Symphony no.10 (1953) is a musical portrait of the dictator, full of violence and brutality. For the first time, the composer made use of his musical signature, DSCH (d, e flat, c, b in german notation). His symphonies would become increasingly personal.

The "war symphonies", instruments of propaganda?

The end of 1941. The German army has besieged Leningrad. A volunteer in the fire brigade, Shostakovich nonetheless found the time to begin composing a seventh symphony. The work's success grew rapidly beyond the country's borders, including a performance in New York in July 1942 conducted by Arturo Toscanini, followed by sixty performances across the United States in one season alone! 

Le compositeur Dimitri Chostakovitch pendant le siège de Leningrad, 1941
Le compositeur Dimitri Chostakovitch pendant le siège de Leningrad, 1941, © Getty / Heritage Images / Hulton Archive

"I merely coult not help writing it. The war was going on around. I had to stay close to my people, I wanted to create an image of the country in battle, to fix it in music", he wrote in his Testimony. 

IMany consider the Symphony no.7 as a symbol of resistance in the face of the Nazi invaders. The Soviet regime decided to use the work as a weapon of propaganda, but Shostakovich saw the work from a different perspective: "I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege. It’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off."

In a similar fashion, the suffering evoked in the Symphony no.8 is not linked solely to the war. It is also a reference to the Stalin purges at the end of the 1930s. The name Stalingrad is somewhat "forcefully" attached, "so as to be linked to the events of the time", notes Bertrand Dermoncourt.

Naturally, the Soviets were far from understand this perspective. In fact, what a disappointment the Symphony no.9 at its first performance in 1945! The entire country expected a great symphony evoking victory, even more grand than the previous works. It was to be nothing of the sort. With its humorous, neoclassical aspects and short structure, the work caused a scandal.

Facing the censors

The Symphony no.5 is undoubtedly one of the Russian maestro's most popular symphonies. Composed in 1937, it is clear and direct, presented as "a composer's answer to just criticism". Indeed, Shostakovich was going to have to explain himself to the official critics... 

Several years earlier, his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934) sparked outrage, namely for its formalism, making "obscure", "unintelligible", and inaccessible to the public. Amongst the most violent critics was the Soviet journal Pravda. Consequently, the Symphony no.4, scheduled to be performed in 1936 was finally cancelled. Its first performance would only take place...25 years later.

Constrained but no less innovative

With so many rules and and restrictions, difficult to feel free! And yet, Shostakovitch's music was at its most innovative. When the composer used classical forms, he would change them in unique ways. "He's a paradox: he created an immense and personal collection of works under an extremely repressive regime",claims André Lischke.

From his very first symphonies, the experimentations began, both harmonically and rhythmically. "It feels like I have entered a new chapter in the history of symphonic music", wrote the conductor Nikolaï Malko when discussing the first Symphony no.1. For the Symphony no.2, actual sirens were included in the orchestration! 

Another unique symphonic work, the Symphony no.14 is made up of eleven short movements. Texts by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker and Rilke are all included, sung by a soprano, a bass and accompanied by a chamber orchestra.

The 15th, a symphonic testament

In the early 1970s, Shostakovich was at his worst. Forced to give up the piano due to complications from some form of poliomyelitis, he soon found out he also had lung cancer. 

If there is one autobiographical symphony, though no less mysterious than the others, it is the Symphony no.15. Composed primarily whilst at the hospital, it retraces the major points of a human life. There is no obsession with death as in the Symphony no.14, the work even begins with a seemingly playful opening. Bright, the first movement evokes a toy shop, a distant childhood memory. 

In many ways, this farewell symphony presents itself as a summary of all the works that preceded it...and not only those by Shostakovich! The first movement cites Rossini's William Tell Overture, whilst the final Adagio includes a subtle reference to the operas by Wagner.

The Russian composer even included various references to his own music, notably references to previous symphonies, the Piano concerto no.1 and Lady Macbeth. And of course, one must not forget his musical signature...