Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) was one of the greatest composers of the last century, yet for much of his life he led a dual existence as a rebellious composer and the musical face of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. As a result, he had to walk a fine line and often composed in fear of his life. Things came to a head when his popular but racy opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was denounced in Pravda after Stalin attended a performance. The frightened composer responded by setting aside his audacious Fourth Symphony to produce a more conservative Fifth that he called “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism.” The work served its purpose, but his fortunes continued to vary. His Sixth Symphony (1939) was not denounced, but it played to mixed reviews. The Seventh, dedicated to the besieged city of Leningrad (1940), was popular and accepted by Stalin. Three years later, the dark, powerful Eighth (1943) was criticized for its pessimism, and in 1945, the Ninth’s witty reaction to the end of the war was disparaged for an alleged lack of patriotism. The last straw was when the Eighth and Ninth were banned as “formalism” in 1948. For six years after that, Shostakovich composed safely patriotic works like The Sun Shines over the Motherland and Song of the Forest. It was not until the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953, that his next great works could spring forth: one was the Tenth Symphony, which emerged as one of its creator’s finest works.

Most scholars believe that Shostakovich hid his true feelings about Stalin and the regime in some of his music, but what those feelings were remains a puzzle. Did he loathe the regime? Were his “patriotic” works really patriotic? Was the concluding fanfare of the Fifth Symphony festive (played fast, as marked) or oppressive (played slowly)?

The Tenth Symphony provides plenty of material for such speculation. It is full of brooding and searching music, mostly in triple meter, with material depicting repression or evil usually in duple meter. Some passages are in triple but sound duple, perhaps indicating a conflict within themselves. The symphony is tied together by a rising three-note motto that comprises the first three notes of a minor scale, e.g., C, D, E-flat, with the dark nature of the flattened third helping to create the ominous quality of the symphony. That motto begins the first three movements, dominates the second, and appears in the finale.

The Tenth marks the first important appearance of DSCH, the composer’s musical signature that seems to appear in places where he inserts himself into the music. DSCH is based on the German Schostakowitsch, with each letter standing for a note as written in German (In German, E-flat is Es; B is H.)

I. Moderato is based on three ideas: a six-beat theme that begins with the motto and broodingly wanders primarily in the lower instruments (A), a plaintive melody in the clarinet and extended by the violins (B), and a jittery, ghostly waltz in the flute, whose duple nature within the three-beat meter creates much of the restlessness and anger of this movement (C). There are two climaxes. The first is met by the horns who rise up and play the motto downward and in reverse note order. The longer, more expansive second one is an assault launched by the violins and trumpets using C. The violins then switch to A, which the trombones drive home, only to be met by the horns. The strings persist, turning C into powerful duplets, but the horns stand firm three times until calm is restored. After the clarinets reflect back on B and C, the brooding returns until a piccolo duet seems to ask, “What now?”

II. Allegro. According to Solomon Volkov’s controversial Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer called this movement a portrayal of Stalin, but some scholars expand it to evil in general. The motto (now three stabbing eighth-notes) ignites a rage of brass, winds, and swirling strings, peaking when the trombones and trumpets pound out the motto with brute force. A middle section turns the first two eighth-notes of the motto into slurred sixteenth-notes that skitter and dart like demons. The opening material returns, and the movement charges to the finish.   

III. Allegretto—Largo—Più mosso is a movement of threes. Its meter is in three. There are three main elements: a strutting, triple meter march based on the motto and attached to a wandering flowing line; a sardonic waltz interspersed with DSCH plus a fanfare figure based on the waltz; a six-note horn figure that recalls A from the Moderato and frequently interrupts the proceedings. The movement is also in three parts. The first features a sardonic march and its flowing line plus the mocking waltz that contains the first appearance of DSCH (piccolo, flute, and oboe). The second part begins with the first of several solo horn calls that interrupt a period of somber reflection. A long English horn solo based on the march transitions into the third part. The brass sound a fanfare based on the waltz, and the strings play the waltz and DSCH, creating excitement and conflict until powerful horn calls intervene. DSCH insists, but things subside into a coda where a single violin’s march is interrupted by two solo horn calls, leaving us with the flute and piccolo forlornly intoning DSCH.

IV. Andante—Allegro—L’istesso tempo. Brooding low strings give way to lamenting wind solos against a dark string background. A skittering vivace leaps forth but ominously in duple meter, and violent elements try to stamp out the romp. Bedlam builds, the Stalinist Allegro charges into the fray, and just when the future seems in doubt, DSCH soars from the rest of the orchestra to stop the chaos in its tracks. The atmosphere is now somber, as the low string material from the beginning of the movement returns, interspersed with quiet statements of DSCH in the trumpet and trombone. The Stalin figure appears one last time in the bass, only to be dispelled by a rollicking bassoon solo, and the earlier hijinks return. The horns proclaim DSCH in triumph, and the trombones pick it up more solemnly. The symphony rushes to a conclusion that is celebratory but does not entirely dispel the suspicion that for all the Tenth’s release and relief, something ominous lurks.                                                                                                                                       

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. His latest fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

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