Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Shostakovich - Symphony No. 15

Dmitri Shostakovich has been called one of the most influential composers, especially of symphonies, of the 20th century.  His 15 symphonies were composed from 1924 when he was seventeen, to 1971 when he was 65, covering most of his career and life as a composer.  His last symphony was written a few years before his death, and since its premiere there has been much written about it, good and bad.  The symphony is in 4 movements:

I. Allegretto -  This movement was originally labeled by Shostakovich as 'The Toyshop'. It begins with the tinkling of the glockenspiel, and the music unrolls in the type of nervous humor that Shostakovich was known for.  Shostakovich was also known for his quoting of other composers music (and in this symphony even his own) and the most obvious quote in this movement is the familiar one from The William Tell Overture by Rossini, which Shostakovich uses four times in the movement. The music twists and turns into more than 'toyshop' music as the nervous humor changes to something tinged with sinister sounds. With punctuation provided by castanets, and two sections of quite complex polyrhythms (one for strings, one for woodwinds) the movement stumbles its way to the end.

II.Adagio - Largo - Adagio - Allegretto - In contrast to the goings-on of the previous movement, the second movement begins with the solemn playing of the brass section. A solo cello plays a mournful theme that utilizes a very large part of the range of the instrument. The brass section enters once again, the solo cello continues where it left off with its lament, but is twice interrupted by a harsh, dissonant chord by the woodwinds (these chords will appear again later in the symphony). Flutes play a new theme, a solo trombone plays its version of the lament. After more from the flutes, solo trombone and solo violin, the dissonant woodwind chords lead to a tremendous outburst from the entire orchestra. After the outburst, combinations of instruments play quiet snippets of themes heard before, with a wood block clopping in the background. A solo vibraphone plays with a solo double bass. The opening music for brass reappears and the movement quietly draws to a close with the timpani and strings.

III. Allegretto - The third movement begins without pause with music of nervous humor like the opening of the first movement. Trombone glissandos are added as the music gads about and around a solo violin. It ends abruptly with the clacking of percussion.

IV. Adagio - Allegretto - Adagio - Allegretto -  The movement begins with another quote, this time from Wagner's Fate leitmotif from Der Ring des Nibelungen. This theme is heard sporadically in the first section of the movement. The music drifts to a theme that sounds similar to the theme from the first movement of his Seventh Symphony 'Leningrad'.  There is a tremendous crescendo, and the seventh symphony theme is heard again. The music winds down with a dissonant chord in the orchestra. Violins play another Wagner quote, the grief  leitmotif from Tristan And Isolde.  The dissonant woodwind chords of the second movement reappear, after which Shostakovich has the strings play a long pedal point chord while the celesta, glockenspiel, side drum, and castanets take turns clacking out soft rhythms reminiscent of the end of the third movement while the timpani plays the seventh symphony theme. This final section is similar to the ending of his 4th Symphony (which was withdrawn by the composer from the premiere in 1936, just after Shostakovich was denounced the first time, and not premiered until 1961) The dialog of the percussion instruments (and the symphony) ends with the glockenspiel and celesta together sounding a note over the evaporating pedal point of the strings.

The 15th Symphony is a work of complexity, both musical and emotional. Outside of the percussion section, the orchestra is large but not as large as some of Shostakovich's other symphonies.  Instruments are used frequently in smaller groupings that are seasoned with the salt-and-pepper of the percussion section. The symphony has an almost chamber music sound to it.  A friend of the composer, Isaak Glikman, quoted what the composer told him about the many quotes from other composers in the work:
"I don't myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them."
Dmitri Shostakovich has been dead for almost 40 years, and in death as in life his music is still creating controversy.  He was a complex man, capable of writing deep, soulful music and also capable of writing loud, boisterous clap-trap, sometimes within the same composition. In essence, his music will always carry a sense of mystery, of literal or perceived extra-musical meaning, which can be said of many composers.

Call Shostakovich's music what you will, like it or hate it, it's hard to ignore either way. While he most certainly can be morose in the extreme,  his best compositions are written from the heart. He is a composer that I admit I have to be in a certain mood to hear. It just doesn't sit well in my ear sometimes, which says as much about me as his music. But at other times, Shostakovich's music is what I need to hear.


  1. Tomorrow night admirers of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra CSO (in Phoenix, Arizona) will gather to hear Gunther Schuller conducting the CSO from the 1979/1980 season. We will hear a live concert in Orchestra Hall, the home of the CSO. This concert was recorded by our friend Jim who was picked by Georg Solti to record the concerts and provide the tapes to WFMT (classical music station). We are awed by the maestro, Solti and by the artistry of the CSO. Thank you for providing this rendition, we will compare it to Schuller's efforts. When was this performed?