Shostakovich Symphony No. 10

Altria Masterworks Series


Conductor: Steven Smith

Guest Artists: Anne Akiko Meyers

Steven Smith, Conductor
Anne Akiko Meyers, Violin


Video Interview with Mason Bates discussing his Violin Concerto Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10


Mason Bates: Violin Concerto



    Anne Akiko Meyers, violin                         Mason Bates, composer

Liadov   The Enchanted Lake, Opus 62  
Mason Bates      

Violin Concerto 

                                Anne Akiko Meyers, violin

                                Mason Bates, composer

Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Opus 93

                I. Moderato

                II. Allegro

                III. Allegretto

                IV. Andante - Allegro 



Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10
Notes by Steven Smith for Richmond Symphony performances March 1-2, 2014

Historical Context

The symphonies of Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovich represent a direct lineage that poignantly illustrates significant aspects of their individual eras. Each of these three composers chose the medium of the symphony (typically a four movement structure – sometimes expanded) to express their most profound thoughts and emotions about both their individual lives and wider world.

The fifteen symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich collectively form a crucial document of the 20th century. From his youth during the Russian Revolution through his life in the Soviet Union experiencing the rise of Stalin, World War II and later the Cold War, Shostakovich came to write intensely powerful music using primarily traditional formal and harmonic structures. His particular choice of the symphony and the string quartet to convey his deepest emotions (often with a kind of double meaning to conform to the pressure of state doctrine) is remarkable for the seeming contradiction of economy of means and enormous communicative power. The many stories of emotional public reactions to performances of his works are a testament to the voice he as an individual artist provided to an entire suffering population.

In the Tenth Symphony, we hear music that is reputed to be a reflection of the tyrannical and barbarous years of terror under Josef Stalin. (I say reputed because of the controversy surrounding the publication of Solomon Volkov’s “Testimony” which the author claimed to have been memoirs dictated and authorized by the composer himself, but has been the subject of a great deal of controversy as to its authenticity. Whether the specific attribution of the Tenth as “a portrait of Stalin” is precisely true is somewhat irrelevant since the music itself clearly conveys the sorrow and terror of those years.) From the expansive, brooding opening to the ending’s triumphant proclamation of the indomitability of the human spirit to overcome the greatest evil, this symphony takes us on a stunning and epic human journey.

Below I have included links to a live performance by Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic from 1976, a year after Shostakovich’s death. While the sound quality is somewhat problematic and contains a fair amount of audience noise, I think it is fascinating to hear, particularly because Mravinsky worked closely with Shostakovich on the premieres of many of his symphonies, including the Tenth (in 1953).

Movement by Movement

I. Moderato

The substantial first movement builds gradually, creating an extended arc, from the deeply brooding opening phrases in the lower strings, to the solo voice of the clarinet searching for hope, to the subtly manipulated quasi-waltz theme in the solo flute. As the movement reaches its climax in the “chords of crisis” we clearly hear the voices of desperation of an oppressed and terrified populace. The quiet closing of the movement in the high register of a piccolo duet implies a reach for, and possibly the attainment of heavenly hope and relief.




VIDEO: II. Allegro
The second movement is as short and brutal as the first is broad and reflective. It begins with the powerful dynamic of fortissimo (ff) and contains around 50 crescendos, with only one fleeting step back to a softer piano dynamic before the fortissimo returns. By the end it truly feels as if you have been run over by a tank. (This performance is exceptionally fast!)

VIDEO: III. Allegretto
The third movement is a kind of ghostly waltz which Shostakovich wrote about having first appeared to him in a dream. Its mysterious and questioning character leads to a more sprightly second waltz that introduces a signature motive that Shostakovich uses to great dramatic and poetic effect not only in this symphony but in other works to come.

By isolating four letters from his name, D, S, C, H (derived from a German transliteration: Schostakovich) he arrives at the four pitches (also in German notation D, Es, C, H) D, E flat, C, B natural. (If you attend my pre-concert talk an hour before the concert I will explain this in greater depth and with musical examples!) This musical signature of DSCH plays a crucial role through the remaining pages of the symphony, representing not only himself but also the voice of any individual struggling to survive in such a time. It is in some ways a kind of shorthand for the power of the human spirit to overcome the most horrible of fates.

As this seems to fade away we are met with a horn melody markedly opposite from the chromatic nature of the waltz theme. It is as if time stands still and we hope for the beauty of the world this simple melody represents. (By the way, this melody has a kind of signature, too – come to the talk to hear more!) This horn melody is heard 11 more times, unaltered in each case, preserving this ideal of hope, contrasted with the repeated DSCH motive, responding to the brutal attacks from all sides. Finally the movement fades back into its ghostly aura as a violin solo, flute and piccolo disappear into an unresolved string sonority.

VIDEO: IV. Andante - Allegro
One of the interesting aspects of this symphony from a formal perspective is its lack of a full slow movement. Yet, between the expansiveness of the first movement and the introduction of the fourth, we have much slow music of great portent and emotional power. This fourth and final movement, like the first, begins with a brooding statement in the lower strings. This is followed by a series of soliloquies from solo woodwinds. In Shostakovich’s music, these incredibly poignant and personal statements are the expressions of individuals from deep within their souls. With one tiny impertinent interruption from the clarinet we are off on a kind of romp, with a sense of humor as if to say that despite all torment we will continue to live our lives. However there is a bit of a meandering nature in this playful melody that might imply a sense of directionless, a sense of disquiet as to what will come next. As Shostakovich said, “It is hard to run freely when you are constantly looking over your shoulder.” As the movement builds in intensity, the brutality of the second movement returns and is soundly put in its place by the DSCH motive, as if Shostakovich, on behalf of the entire Russian nation is declaring that Stalin is vanquished and the people live on! After a poignant reminiscence of the fragility and oppression of the first movement the music builds to a triumphant conclusion, the DSCH motive being hammered out repeatedly in the timpani.


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