Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Opus 93

Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Opus 93

Dmitri Dmitrieivich Shostakovich was born September 25, 1906, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and died August 9, 1975, in Moscow. He composed his Tenth Symphony in the summer and fall of 1953, and it was premiered December 17, 1953, in Leningrad, with Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic. The first performance in the United States was given by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony under Di­mitri Mitropoulos on October 14, 1954. The first San Francisco Symphony performances, in January 1969, were led by Peter Erös. The most recent SFS performances, in October 2006, were conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo (second flute also doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn (doubling third oboe), two clarinets and E-flat clarinet (doubling third clarinet), two bassoons and contrabassoon (doubling third bassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, and strings. Performance time: about fifty-three minutes.

The Background
Dmitri Shostakovich spent most of his career falling in and out of favor with the Communist authorities. His Symphony No. 1 launched him on a promising career upon his graduation, in 1926, from the conservatory in his native Saint Petersburg, and he started turning heads as a pianist, too. But within a few years of this debut, his satirical opera The Nose (staged in 1930) ran afoul of Soviet politicos, and the powerful Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians denounced its “bourgeois decadence.” He redeemed himself with his charming, often brash Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1933, but things turned sour again in early 1936, when Stalin decided to see the Shostakovich opera everyone was talking about, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Denounced in the press, Shostakovich contritely offered his Fifth Symphony (1937) as “the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism” (not really Shostakovich’s words, though often attributed to him). The regime accepted his apology and awarded him the Stalin Prize twice in succession, in 1940 for his Piano Quintet and in 1941 for his Symphony No. 7 (the Leningrad, which memorialized that city’s suffering under Hitler's siege). Then, in 1945, his star fell again when his Ninth Symphony struck the bureaucrats as insufficiently reflecting the glory of Russia’s victory over the Nazis. By 1948, Shostakovich found himself condemned along with other composers for “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music, alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.” He responded with a pathetic acknowledgement of guilt and the next year redeemed himself with Song of the Forests, a nationalist oratorio that gained him yet another Stalin Prize.

After Stalin’s death, in 1953, the Soviet government stopped bullying artists quite so much. But by then Shostakovich had grown indelibly traumatized and paranoid. He retreated to a somewhat conservative creative stance, and until 1960 he contented himself with writing generally lighter fare, keeping his musical behavior in check as if he suspected the Soviet cultural thaw were simply an illusion that might reverse itself at any moment. In 1960, however, his Seventh and Eighth String Quartets launched a late period of productivity that would include many notable works of searing honesty.

Shostakovich began his Symphony No. 10 only a few months after Stalin’s death. Or perhaps earlier. The pianist Tatyana Nikolaeva, one of his confidants, insisted that the symphony—and unquestionably its first movement--dates from 1951, and that the piece, like so many others, was withheld until after Stalin’s death. In 1979, the musicologist Solomon Volkov published the much-discussed book Testimony, which he presented as Shostakovich’s “as-related-to” memoirs. The authenticity of the book has been loudly disputed both pro and con (mirroring the political disputes that so often swirled around the composer himself), and many scholars have questioned whether Shostakovich’s scores are really filled with as many covert anti-Stalin protests as Volkov’s book maintains. Regarding the Tenth Symphony, Volkov has Shostakovich relating: “I did depict Stalin in . . .  the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that’s the basis.”

Among those who agree with this reading is the conductor Kurt Sanderling, who attended the preparations and premiere of the work and met with the composer while the piece was being created. Responding to a query about the Tenth Symphony as a Stalin portrait, Sanderling said in 1995: “I think this is quite true. And it was indeed a portrait of Stalin for all of us who had lived through the horrors of that time. But for the listener of today, it is perhaps more like a portrait of a dictatorship in general, of a system of oppression.”

Although Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was overwhelmingly successful at its premiere, some listeners were perplexed by its tone. This gave rise to defenses from prominent figures. The composer Dmitri Kabalevsky declared, “I am deeply convinced that the conflict it portrays arises from the tension now existing throughout the world.” And the violinist David Oistrakh said, “The Symphony is imbued with the lofty ethical principles, deep humanity and genuine feeling of a great artist and patriot. Its strength lies in its enormous dramatic effect, its sharp conflicts, and the captivating beauty and propriety of its language.”

The symphony scored a notable success at its premiere as well as at subsequent performances in Moscow. It was perhaps inevitable that so prominent a new work should come under the close scrutiny of the Composer’s Union, which pondered it over the course of three days in April 1954. Shostakovich, by then adept at apologizing publicly for his music, diplomatically acknowledged that, at the distance of a year, he did sense certain shortcomings in the piece, and that he might write some things differently if he had it to do over. But he didn’t go so far as to volunteer to actually re-write his symphony. The hard-line commissar types lambasted it for being “non-realistic” and ultimately pessimistic, hardly the thing for hopeful Soviet society. By the end of the debate, however, a more liberal faction managed to fashion a compromise position to which the Union’s members could agree, defining the piece in most curious terms as “an optimistic tragedy.”

James M. Keller

The Music
The first movement, darkly brooding, is also long, longer than the third and fourth movements together. Shostakovich begins with low strings. The silence after the first two measures is characteristic for this troubled, wandering music, which stops more than once, as though uncertain of its direction. This opening grows into a long passage for strings alone, which continues until, after several starts and an increase of the tempo, a clarinet mel­ody brings matters into focus. The violins continue and extend this melody, the full orchestra carries it forward to a crest, and then the quiet clarinet completes this chapter. Over rhythmically irregular plucked strings and at a still quicker tempo, a solo flute introduces a new theme, narrow in range, nervous in temperament. The strings pick it up and extend it.

When the texture has thinned to nearly nothing, bassoons and contrabassoon, accompanied by a series of soft timpani rolls, begin the development by exploring the clarinet theme further. Shostakovich stirs up the heat, and the nervous flute theme returns, transformed in character. This high level of tension is sustained for a long time, fierce interventions from timpani and snare drums fanning the flames still further. Moving rapidly from key to key, the music at last quiets down for a recapitulation. The opening music and clarinet theme, having had so much attention in this grim development, are quickly despatched; the flute theme is enhanced as it is played by two clarinets. As we revisit the introduction, Shosta­kovich assigns the burden of the discourse, a farewell imbued with reluctance and regret, to a duet of two piccolos, only one of which is left at the close.

The next movement, the supposed Stalin portrait, is by far the shortest in the symphony. It crashes across the land at relentless speed and fury. The final explosion is prepared by a brief passage of quiet. This, with its suggestion of barely suppressed fury, is still more sinister.

This consummate savagery is followed by a second, more leisurely scherzo. Shostakovich begins with a rhythmically ambiguous, “ticking” theme for the violins. Before long, the violins introduce an idea strikingly different in character, expressive instead of drily detached. This modulates until it reaches C minor, the home key of this movement. Here it takes on new significance. Shostakovich spells out his initials in musical notation, using the German transliteration of his name (Schosta­kowitsch) as well as German notation, where E-flat is called “es” and B-natural is called H. In other words, the sequence D/E-flat/C/B spells DSCH. This imprinting of his own presence is a device Shostakovich used often in his later works.

A pensive horn call changes the atmosphere. This mysterious summons will occur eleven more times before the movement is done, always evoking an intensely serious response in the orchestra. At its first appearance it introduces a recollection of the symphony’s opening measures. This in turn leads to one of the few passages of slow music in the symphony. DSCH is emphatically present, but the last of the horn calls introduces a wispy, hesitant version of the motto, played by flute and piccolo. On this ghostly note the movement ends.

The finale begins with slow music made up of two elements, a meditative theme for low strings and a series of intensely expressive woodwind solos. As the music seems about to lose itself in melancholy, this is brushed aside, and the violins begin a cheerful romp, though it finds room touching moments that are darker and sadder. In the closing minutes, DSCH, with horns and then timpani to speak his name, steps forward to take a bow.

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 July 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.

James M. Keller’s portion of this note appeared in different form in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and is used with permission.

More About the Music
Recordings: Evgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic (Erato)  |  Karel Ančerl conducting the Czech Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Andrew Litton conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Delos)  |  Kurt Sanderling conducting the French National Orchestra (Naïve)

Reading: Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,byElizabeth Wilson (Princeton)  |  Shostakovich: A Life, by Laurel Fay (Oxford)  |  Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich, by Dmitri and Ludmila Sollertinsky (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

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