An Ink-troduction to the Tenth Symphony by Evan Stephens

In one of his critical periods of development and creative power, the middle 1950’s, Shostakovich wrote two of his most acclaimed works: the famous Tenth Symphony, Op.93 and the hugely popular Violin Concerto No.1, Op.99 (introduced next issue!). They represent Shostakovich in his most disturbing symbolist vein of composition. Much more mature and less satirical in subject matter and counterpoint utilized are these works; they are far removed from his earlier concertos and symphonies indeed! Both written in minor keys, they are very similar in several ways.

The Tenth Symphony in E minor, coming just after Stalin’s death in 1953, is very clearly an autobiographical symphony, very free in the “decadence and Western disharmony” that Stalin had so hated. There are several key themes meant to represent people or events, including the infamous D-S-C-H theme, which represents Shostakovitch himself, the man, the composer, the artist.

The first movement, an elephantine Moderato 24 minutes long, is one of the greatest pieces of music Shostakovich ever wrote. There is much symbolist writing to be found: there is a theme representing Stalin, powerful and horrifying in its sheer dissonance. Then there is a major theme, most likely representing the event of Shostakovich’s artistic freedom after Stalin’s death, for it always comes before or after the Stalin theme. The entire movement, from the very opening notes to the last, is underpinned by a deep and lugubrious bass line, sorrowful and haunting.

Detail from 'The Charge of the Lancers' by Umberto Boccioni, 1915 Left: Detail from “The Charge of the Lancers” (1915) by Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)

One of the most amazing challenges I can imagine for any composer is to sustain a constant oppressive mood using a nearly constant bass figure for about 24 minutes of serious contrapuntal music; yet Shostakovitch does just that, with incredible results. The movement is obviously too long to describe in much depth; it has to be heard to be believed. Just don’t let your children hear it, as it could easily inspire nightmares. In fact, the whole first movement has nightmarish elements to it, from the persistent rhythm to the rising chromatic themes carried by the angry listless strings. Many themes drift in and out of the fabric of the movement, almost like thoughts drifting around in a consciousness.

The second movement, an Allegro that is only five minutes by comparison, provides a pictorial contrast to the potent first movement: the rhythm is sharp and frantic instead of vague and labored, and contrary voices are evident almost everywhere. A rather interesting percussion section makes this section a very lively one, along with some extremely busy strings. The bass line found earlier is absent for a time. The main subject is a three-note ascending theme.

Now back to the D-S-C-H theme referenced earlier. In a fascinating musical experiment, Shostakovich translated his name into German: then he took his first initial (D) and first three letters of his last name (SCH) and transliterated them into notes in the German musical alphabet. While some people might find this an insincere way of composing, finding it too erudite and aloof from inspiration, it must be noted that Bach and Liszt both composed in this manner, and that the Symphony doesn’t suffer in anyway from lack of emotive grasp.

Transliterated in this manner, he arrived with a four note theme: D Eb C B. A very autobiographical theme, it belongs to no classical scale save perhaps C harmonic minor (C D Eb F G Ab B C), which is discordant in and of itself; and one shouldn’t forget that C minor was to Shostakovich and Beethoven before him (think of the great Fifth Symphony, or the introspective Third Piano Concerto) his personal key of ire and internal struggle – Shostakovich wrote some of his most famous works in C minor.

The theme appears first early in the third movement, as a second subject, declared by flutes, the lofty instruments of the wind. Perhaps Shostakovich, a universally acknowledged master of the orchestra, selected the instruments which carried his own theme carefully; perhaps he did not. Violins then take the theme and declare it over a jagged bass line which is constant throughout the entire symphony in its mood and force. Then horns repeat the theme, carrying it into a soft phrase ending. The first subject is reinstated and the two joust for supremacy until a noble and moving horn statement interrupts and beings a nocturnal development section. Later in the movement, the main themes return, and like irritated twin comets they wreak havoc on the gentle mood that had settled. By the end, all the themes have converged and multiplied, and now segments of all are stated, and the crucial Allegretto is finished.

The fourth movement is a fitting finale: with the marking Andante-Allegro, the bass line returns insidiously, with an even more sorrowful theme than before. Soon the woodwinds and strings begin to develop a sad and nostalgic theme over a long space, until they are interrupted by the flutes, who have a happy birdsong-like theme which flies over the rest of the orchestra. This is in turn interrupted momentarily by a series of instrumental features.

Each set of instruments plays its given theme and then, after more large-scale counterpoint and rhythmic workings, a lively Mahler-like major section near the close follows (indicating a renewed hope for Shostakovich). With this, the symphony rolls to a triumphant close – but not before the D-S-C-H theme is declared in octaves by almost the entire symphonic range with tremendous drive, signaling the victory of the man, the composer, the artist.

Shostakovich Tenth: Selected Recordings & Reviews
Yes, yes, we know there’s only one – but do watch out for more in the future!

Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Milan Horvat conducting. Recording of Op. 93 Tenth Symphony in E minor, 1994:Point Classics 267164-2 [71’46”] mid-price. Milan Horvat, well-known recently for his work on the David Helfgott Plays Rachmaninoff CD, conducts with precision and wit and the recording is not too dirty (hissing, tape noise, background noise, etc.) to be unbearable. As with most budget classics, the sound is not crystalline, but I found this one much better than most; the interpretation does not suffer whatsoever. And of course, in the violin work, Oistrakh (a legend in his own time) and Mitropoulos do an incredible job I have yet to hear even equaled.


NEXT ISSUE: Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1

In Evan’s part of the USA, this recording are available at, or can be ordered from, Borders Books and Music, Best Buy, Tower Records, Recordtown Music, or Ohlsson’s.

In Singapore, this CD can be purchased (or ordered) from Supreme Records, Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or Borders (Wheelock Place).

In his spare time, Evan Stephens tunes his Stradivarius and plays the 23rd Paganini Caprice, trying to get that tricky 56th measure *just* right. . .

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