Symphony no. 10 in E minor, op. 93

I. Moderato II. Allegro III. Allegretto IV. Andante – Allegro


At the end of World War II, the Soviet regime expected (or rather, demanded) a symphony from Shostakovich (1906-1975) which would accurately reflect the power and triumph of the Red Army. The regime was not exactly satisfied with Shostakovich's two earlier war symphonies (VII. és VIII.) partly because they were suspiciously successful and partly because they lacked the colour of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. “The dissatisfaction increased and spread; they wanted fanfares from me, they wanted odes, they wanted me to write a glorious Ninth Symphony. It being the Ninth Symphony was most unfortunate. I mean, I knew that the blow was inevitable but perhaps it would come later and not so crudely had it not been the Ninth Symphony. I doubt whether Stalin ever queried his own genius or greatness. But when we won the war against Hitler, he became even more inflated. It was like a frog that blows itself up to the size of an ox, with the difference that around him, everyone regarded Stalin as an ox and gave him what all oxen are due. Everyone praised Stalin and expected me to join in with this thankless chorus. (…) They wanted me to use quadruple winds, chorus and soloist to praise the leader. All the more so since Stalin felt this number was symbolic.” As we can see from that quotation, Shostakovich was not the first composer to feel the weight of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony like a millstone around his neck. “When the Ninth Symphony was premiered, Stalin became angry. He was deeply offended there was no chorus or soloists involved. And no apotheosis. Not even a measly dedication. There was only music, which Stalin did not really understand and was full of dubious content.”


Shostakovich wrote no more symphonies in the ensuing years. Additionally, he again found himself coming under pressure similar to the times following the notorious Stalin inspired Pravda revue of 1936, “Chaos instead of Music.” It took Stalin's death, on March 5th 1953 to prompt Shostakovich return to the genre of symphony. He worked on the new work with great rapidity and was finished by summer 1953. He poured all his bitterness into the Tenth Symphony and later admitted that the second movement, the Scherzo, was a musical portrait of Stalin.


The premiere in December 1953, attracted great interest. Khachaturian, who in 1948 was also attacked by the hatchet men of official cultural policy, aptly described it as an “optimistic tragedy” in which ultimately spirit and affirmation come out on top. Many doubted this though. The Soviet Composer's Association held a three day long meeting where many objected to the symphony's pessimism and formalism, but all Shostakovich would say of this symphony was that with it, he wanted to express human feelings and passions.


No one knows for sure whether the Tenth Symphony contains a programme or not. Some analysts regard it as the most abstractly musical of all Shostakovich's fifteen symphonies. The beginning of the first movement, from which it unravels, seems to evoke Bruckner. Following this monumental movement, a surprisingly short Allegro ensues (this portrait of Stalin lasts all of four minutes), which is related to Mahler's demonic marches. The Allegretto would seem to be a self-portrait to some degree as the composer's own motto (D, E flat, C, B, which in the German convention spells Shostakovich's initials) features prominently. But another motif appears to which alludes (in the same manner) to Elmira Nazirova. She was one of his pupils and Shostakovich felt deeply for her and they were very close during the composition of the Tenth Symphony. The final movement is on a grand scale but whether it is dramatic, pessimistic, or optimistic, only the listener can decide.

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