Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15 in A Major, Opus 141

Symphony No. 15 in A Major, Opus 141

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He completed his Symphony No. 15 in 1971, and his son Maxim conducted the first performance with the USSR Radio Symphony in the concert hall of the Moscow Conservatory on January 8, 1972. On September 28, 1972, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra introduced the work in this country. The San Francisco Symphony first performed this music under John Nelson’s direction in February 1980. The most recent performances, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, were given in March 2005. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, castanets, soprano tom tom, snare drum, woodblock, slapstick cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, celesta, and strings. The composer asks for sixteen first and fourteen second violins, twelve each of violas and cellos, and ten basses, adding that while these numbers are “not mandatory … [they] would give the best results.” Performance time: about forty-two minutes.
Shostakovich’s is one of the most fascinating of all artists’ biographies. The subject is a critic’s and historian’s dream—a composer who has added indispensable works to the orchestral, chamber, and operatic repertory; a man who committed himself neither to heroism nor to moral and intellectual slavery; whose actions and statements cover so wide a range from the noble to the base, from open to masked; whose music exhibits such divergence between public and private works; whose achievement is so uneven, not just between works but within them; who functioned in a society singularly, even tyrannically demanding of its artists; whose every anguished photograph screams for an answer to the question, “Who is this man?” It would be hard to think of another composer whose work is so intensely, so immediately, so drastically affected by life—his own, but also that of the world in and for which he wrote.

At nineteen, Shostakovich startled his teachers at the Leningrad Conservatory with the dazzlingly accomplished Symphony No. 1 that he submitted as a graduation exercise. Arrangements were made for a performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic. Bruno Walter heard that concert and soon after introduced the work in Berlin, whence it quickly made its way through Europe and to America. At twenty, Shostakovich had an international reputation. Two more symphonies followed in rapid succession, both explicitly political, both with chorus, one called To October, commemorating the 1917 Revolution, the other The First of May, honoring International Workers’ Day.

Between the Third Symphony and the Fourth, there was an interval of six years. The major achievement for Shostakovich during that period was the completion of his seamy and brilliant opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,performed to great acclaim in Leningrad and Moscow in 1934 and soon produced abroad as well. Shostakovich began his Fourth Symphony in a state of high confidence and energy. After the departures from the mainstream of symphonic composition in the October and May celebrations he was ready to pick up where he had left off in the First Symphony. But the leap forward in scale, ambition, complexity, and accomplishment is immense. We are looking at something like the difference between Beethoven’s First Symphony and the Eroica.

Then, a bombshell. On January 28, 1936, Pravda ran an article in which Lady Macbeth was castigated for its “formalism,” lack of melody, a generally fidgety and neurasthenic manner, immorality in the choice of story and the telling of it—in sum, for exemplifying “‘Leftist’ confusion instead of natural human music.” In spite of this discouraging turn, Shostakovich finished his Fourth Symphony toward the end of May, and it was duly put into rehearsal by the Leningrad Philharmonic. Shostakovich, whose opera had been stricken from the calendar of every theater in the Soviet Union and one of whose ballets had meanwhile been attacked in another Pravda editorial, had no appetite for further trouble. On the eve of the premiere, Shostakovich withdrew the Fourth, and that score, his most powerful symphony and one of a handful of great symphonies since Elgar, Mahler, and Sibelius, was not heard until 1961. When Shostakovich presented his next symphony, the Fifth, to the public in November 1937, it was what a contemporary reviewer described as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”; only with the publication in 1979 of his alleged memoirs, Testimony, did we get a hint of what that work’s secret and rebellious “program” might be.
With the jubilant public reception of the Fifth Symphony came political rehabilitation, at least for a while. In 1948, at the hands of Andrei Zhdanov and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Shostakovich was subjected to attacks far more vicious and more brutish than those of 1936. (A second rehabilitation followed in 1958.) But the events of 1936 were a turning point in Shostakovich’s life. That year there began for him an unceasing sense of fear and repression. In his Eleventh and Twelfth symphonies—their titles are 1905 and 1917: In Memory of Lenin, the former winning the Lenin Prize—Shostakovich composed his last ostensible propaganda symphonies.

After that, he brought his discontent into the open, setting provocative texts by the controversial Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his Thirteenth Symphony (1962) and making his annihilating Fourteenth (1969) a cycle of songs about death, something far removed from the official optimism of public Soviet art. Nonetheless, his government found it more useful or politic to exploit than to harass him, and he was loaded with honors at home even as he was abroad. In those last years, he devoted most of his energy to the composition of songs and chamber music. This, then, is the context for the enigmatic Fifteenth and last of his symphonies.

It starts brightly. Over an ever so slightly capricious accompaniment of glockenspiel with plucked strings, a flute bounces through a jaunty tune. It is a little skewed in its harmony and is long. Shostakovich symphonies often begin with stretched and meandering melodies, usually solemn ones, and Andrew Porter has convincingly suggested that the flute here “seems to be making a merry, mocking allusion to those long, low, slowly wandering themes.” The rhythm begins to be that of a quickstep and sends the music right into the most famous tune in Rossini’s William Tell Overture, played on a trumpet and with one of the chords wrong. What is happening here? Shostakovich often quoted himself, particularly in the last fifteen years of his life, but making so explicit a reference to so well-known a theme by someone else is new. The William Tell theme will pop up four more times during this movement. The program note at the first performance explained that this movement depicts a toy shop at night, the toys all springing to life in their keeper’s absence. That seems too innocent. About this “call to arms [sounding] as if from a toy trumpet,” Porter asks: “Would it be too fanciful to suggest that, whereas William Tell was an active fighter for freedom, a musician—Shostakovich now feels—has the power to make only small, ineffectual gestures?”

Later events in the symphony make it impossible to believe that any quotation, and particularly one so aggressively identifiable, could have been placed in the interests of nothing more than a cute bit of genre painting. In Testimony, Shostakovich also tells us that the music of his Fifteenth Symphony is tied to his plans for a project evidently unfinished—or perhaps not even begun—at the time of his death, and that is an opera based on Anton Chekhov’s study of megalomania, The Black Monk. In the rambling conversations that make up Testimony, Shostakovich more than once alludes to The Black Monk as a work he is “determined to write”; he also makes it clear that, along with Mussorgsky, Chekhov—wry, unembarrassed, incorruptibly clearsighted, full of knowledge of the gray in life—was the artist who meant most to him and whose work, whose very style of existence, most surely sustained and nourished him. I cannot offer you the definitive interpretation of the William Tell reference, but the evidence within the symphony and outside it says that it cannot be as trivial as the composer so carefully makes it seem.

In the Adagio, Shostakovich alludes to an earlier work of his own, the first movement, also an Adagio, of his Symphony No. 11. Writing for the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, Shostakovich, as already mentioned, chose for his subject the year 1905. It was the year of Russia’s humiliating defeat in her foolish war against Japan, a year also of strikes, uprisings, and some significant left-wing victories in the Duma. Shostakovich chose, however, to concentrate on “Bloody Sunday,” January 9, when thousands of workers and intellectuals with their families gathered in peaceful petition before the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The Tsar’s police and armed Cossacks fired into the densely packed crowd. At least a thousand unarmed civilians were killed and many more wounded. Shostakovich was writing ostensibly about Nicholas II, but he was not forgetting the tyrants who had replaced the Tsar.

The Palace Square movement from the Eleventh Symphony is the source for the solemn brass chorale that begins the Adagio of the Fifteenth and that comes back as a refrain. Its soft contour is contrasted against the twelve-note melodies sung, unaccompanied, by the solo cello and solo violin. (Beginning with the String Quartet No. 12 of 1968, Shostakovich repeatedly explored the expressive possibilities of twelve-note melodies, always in contexts of deaths and despair.) Later, with the appearance of a funeral march, the imagery becomes still more explicit. For what happens next, I cannot resist quoting Porter again: “. . . the earlier lyricism turns to ice when the celesta, in a quiet solo that steals into a hushed hall, spells out the cello’s theme in inversion: sad, soft-falling transformation of what had been ardent and aspirant.”

Without break, the Adagio dissolves into a scherzo in the sardonic tone Shostakovich often used in such movements. So at least it begins (with another twelve-note theme). Trumpet fanfares try for something nobler, but, against sneering trombones, their gestures are as impotent as the Lilliputian calls to arms of the first movement. As the trombones mock, the horns pronounce the composer’s own name, that is, the D.SCH. motto that occurs so often in Shostakovich’s later music. (Shostakovich uses the German transliteration of his name, beginning with Sch, and also using the German names for musical notes: Es is German for E-flat, H is German for B-natural; thus D.SCH. yields D/E-flat/C/B.) The chatter of tambourine, castanets, woodblock, and xylophone brings the movement to an end.

Beginning his finale, Shostakovich again reaches into a world of music long and profoundly familiar and full of associations. What we hear is the solemn sequence of brass chords from the Annunciation of Death scene in the Second Act of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Brünnhilde, beautiful and stern, appears before Siegmund to tell him that he will die in his battle with Hunding. The key words in Andrew Porter’s translation are:

Those doomed to death
alone can see me;
who meets my gaze
must turn from the light of life.
I appear in the fight
to deathdoomed heroes:
those whom I choose
have no choice but to die!

Wagner brings that music back in the final act of Götterdämmerung when Hagen, punishing perjury, has plunged his spear into Siegfried’s back. Here, too, Shostakovich slightly alters what he quotes, changing the pitch of the drumbeats and making their rhythm something between the simple pattern in Die Walküre and the more complex one in Götterdämmerung. But the more significant change is in what follows the brass and the pulsing drums. In Walküre it is the nobly impassioned dialogue of Siegmund and Brünnhilde; in Götterdämmerung the radiant transformation of Brünnhilde’s greeting to the sun, to light, to day, to life. Here, it is a wanly disconsolate tune—one of the long and meandering sort—that begins with another Wagner reference, the grieving A-F-E with which Tristan opens.

The climax of the movement is a citation, dark and twisted, from the heroic Leningrad Symphony, a work which, according to Testimony, is “not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.” Like the Fourth Symphony, with which this story began, and the tragic Eighth, written in mid-war and which Shostakovich said was, with the Leningrad, his Requiem, the Fifteenth ends with strings softly holding a single chord for many pages. Here the chord is incomplete; there are just two notes, A and E. Across it, timpani recall the Leningrad passacaglia while percussion clacks and pings and patters away. The chattering xylophone turns the strings’ hollow chord to clear A major, and with a bell-tone, quiet and bright, like that with which the music had begun, it now disappears.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Mstislav Rostropovich and the London Symphony Orchestra (Warner Classics)  |  Maxim Shostakovich and the Prague Symphony Orchestra (Supraphon)  |  Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic (London)  |  Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (London)

Reading: Shostakovich: A Life, by Laurel E. Fay (Oxford)  |  Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,by Elizabeth Wilson (Princeton)  |  The Shostakovich Casebook, edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown (Indiana University Press)  |  Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia,by Boris Schwarz (Indiana University Press)

DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer’s life and his Fifth Symphony in an episode of Keeping Score, available from SFS Media and online at

(June 2014)