The longest gap in Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonic output was the eight years between his Symphony No. 9, in 1945, and No. 10, in 1953. In between, he was denounced by Soviet authorities for a second time, accused of “formalism”—writing music without a proper social purpose. For a time he lost his teaching posts at the Leningrad and Moscow conservatories and many of his pieces were blacklisted. In need of money, he turned to writing film music, and also recommitted himself to grand, politically correct (in the original sense) cantatas with an eye toward rehabilitation.
Then on March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin died, ushering in what eventually became known as the Khrushchev Thaw. That summer, Shostakovich set to work on his Tenth Symphony, finishing the first movement on August 5 and the last on October 25. Some elements seem to date earlier—a colleague said he showed her portions in 1951, and an unfinished violin sonata from 1945 has similar material. The symphony was premiered on December 17, 1953, by the Leningrad Philharmonic.
Solomon Volkov’s 1979 book Testimony, which claims to be Shostakovich’s memoir smuggled out of the Soviet Union, pinpoints the symphony as a “portrait of Stalin and the Stalin years.” The veracity of the book, which paints Shostakovich as a secret dissident writing cryptic protests, is widely disputed. In any political system, it’s possible for someone to recognize the evil and ludicrous nature of a regime—even be personally subjected to it—without rejecting the entire premise of the society they know. As the harshest restrictions lessened, Shostakovich found that while adhering to the letter of Socialist Realism, he could still express a sweep of “human emotions and passions,” as he called it—including, probably, thoughts and feelings that couldn’t be said out loud. In April 1945, the Composers’ Union combed through the Tenth Symphony, and after Shostakovich made some obligatory apologies, they gave it a reluctant stamp of approval. It certainly emerged from the circumstances and experiences of the late Stalin era, but if anyone could point to a clear effigy of Stalin in the second movement, it never would have been heard again.
The first movement is a magnificently paced Moderato that builds tension in a single-minded expanse through a series of harrowing climaxes. It begins in the cellos and basses and grows into a string chorale that is somehow both calm and deeply uneasy at the same time. A winding clarinet solo feels like the first utterance of what had so far only been internal; a horn cry introduces fuller symphonic writing, before falling back with a quiet brass chorale and the lonesome clarinet again. Then a new element: a wry little flute solo, accompanied by plucked strings. Slowly this builds up to more than 30 score pages of overwhelming fortissimo, and just when it seems like there’s no more room to crescendo, Shostakovich brings in military drums and then three devastating crashes on the tam-tam. He follows with a gradual falloff, almost organ-like, before touching on the opening again (now in the bassoons). This time, instead of clarinet, the movement dissolves in the eerie whistle of piccolo and timpani.
The seething scherzo reworks material from the first movement at about five times the speed and in one-sixth the time. Pages of fortissimo rush across the conductor’s desk as the orchestra drives relentlessly forward. In a stomach-dropping instant, the strings are hushed into near silence without breaking their frantic flight. They re-crescendo to a savage cutoff.
The third movement, Allegretto, cautiously peaks its head out to look around. Along comes an ironic parade, with piccolo and flute accompanied by timpani and triangle. The pitches spell out a kind of emblem—D-S-C-H. Dmitri Schostakowitsch. (All in German spelling, where S=E-flat and H=B-natural.) It became a recurring hallmark in his later works, and appears prominently for the first time here. There’s also a second name hidden in lonesome horn calls: E-La-Mi-Re-La. Elmira. (This one in a mix of German and French notation.) She was Elmira Nazirova, a 25-year-old Jewish Azerbaijani pianist and composer who had studied with Shostakovich in the late ’40s. They reconnected when he visited Baku in 1952, and in April 1953 he started writing her regularly, initiating a mostly one-sided emotional affair by mail. She accepted his invitation to attend the symphony’s first Moscow performance, and he gave her an autographed copy of the score. Between its pages, their musical monograms mingle and then slip apart.
The last movement, like the first, begins with cellos and basses. A familiar color, but this time with different, vaguer music. Then we hear the oboe—an instrument hardly used lyrically in the previous movements, but one that often appears in Shostakovich’s music at moments of transformation or rebirth. From the Andante introduction, a flute solo (reminiscent of the piccolo ending of the first movement) bridges into a darting Allegro, channeling a klezmer wedding dance. Yet its materials are not so different from those of the terrifying Scherzo, just as the cathartic D-S-C-H ending recontextualizes calamitous elements from the first and third movements. In music, small alterations can turn tragedy into triumph, violence into victory.