What is Shostakovich’s best symphony?


Dmitri Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies, spanning his entire creative life from his teenage years at the Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory until shortly before his death in the 1970s, when he was internationally recognized.

Most of the Soviet composer’s symphonies dealt with “the endless battle between good and evil”, said the composer’s son, Maxim. The temperature; Shostakovich’s life under a communist regime was inextricably linked to his artistic production.

Here is my overview of Shostakovich’s seven best symphonies.

The best Shostakovich Symphonies

Symphony No. 1

In seventh place, Shostakovich’s First Symphony. Where better to start this list than at the very beginning? It is perhaps provocative to place Shostakovich’s first symphony, written when he was only 19, above the other eight symphonies omitted from this list. But the first three symphonies tend to be overlooked – and the first is more than worth listening to, even if it’s later that Shostakovich hits his symphonic beat. After its public premiere in 1926, a few years after it was written, it was the piece that propelled the young Soviet composer onto the international map, as conductors included it in their repertoire.

Symphony No. 5

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony takes sixth place. The Fifth is regularly described as Shostakovich’s most popular symphony. After the official condemnation of his successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk, denounced in a Pravda article titled “Rubbish Instead of Music“, Shostakovich needed to write something to please the Soviet authorities. The result was Symphony No. 5, his “practical creative response of a Soviet artist to fair criticism”. Yet while the finale outwardly claims to offer triumph and celebration at the end, there is more than enough ambiguity for it to be heard as a hollow victory. The endless repetitions of the ‘A’ note in the strings tell a whole different story. It is, Shostakovich reportedly said, “like someone beating you with a stick and saying your business rejoices, your business rejoices”.

Symphony No. 13

In fifth position is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13. There is no ambiguity in this symphony which begins with a denunciation of anti-Semitism and Soviet indifference, with the first of Evgeny Yevtushenko’s five poems. The “Babi Yar” Adagio gives the symphony its nickname, in reference to the site where the Nazis massacred the Jews in 1941, and which was left without a memorial by the Russians. An off-the-cuff satirist Allegretto mocks dictators who think they can stifle humor, followed by a Adagio who laments and pays homage to the plight of women. Fear has seeped into every corner of life in the Soviet Union, and this is the subject of the Largo, before a finale that pays tribute to those who have sacrificed their careers to preserve their integrity. For bass soloist, male choir and full orchestra, the Thirteenth is a courageous act of creative challenge that still resonates today.

Symphony No. 4

Symphony No. 4 occupies fourth place. This audacious three-movement symphony is, according to the Grove Dictionary of Music, a “colossal synthesis of Shostakovich’s musical development to date” – including his first three symphonies. The 29-year-old composer had almost completed the piece in 1936 when the critic Pravda article came out (see ‘Symphony No. 5’) but he decided not to change a note of the Fourth in response – even if it fell far short of the demands of socialist realism. Yet, at some point during the rehearsal process, the premiere was canceled, possibly as a result of pressure from the authorities. It was not until 1961, in the decade after Stalin’s death, that the play was heard in public. Mahler’s ghost is heard in its musical style and expansive canvas (125 musicians) – and for all its dense weirdness, this symphony has won public opinion since its inception.

Symphony No. 15

In third place is Symphony No. 15. If all of Shostakovich’s symphonies have their dark moments, The Fifteenth’s mark of sadness is, well, the darkest of them all. This strange symphony borders on absurd and ironic, its quotations from Rossini and Wagner inexplicable but brilliant; its spare orchestration often unexpected but always just. Filmmaker David Lynch says he was inspired by Symphony No. 15 when making his film blue velvet – if you want to get an idea of ​​how strange, enigmatic and wonderful this piece is. Listen, question, don’t wait for answers.

Symphony No. 8

Symphony No. 8 takes second place. The Eighth was, for the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, Shostakovich’s “most important work”. The composer wrote the symphony in 1943, shortly after the success of his seventh ‘Leningrad’ symphony, and under pressure to reflect the official triumphant mood after Soviet military gains over the Nazis. Shostakovich said in an interview that “overall it is an upbeat, life-affirming work” and that the five movements chart a course from C minor to C major. But for many listeners, the music’s overall behavior suggests that its statement shouldn’t be taken at face value. In this symphony are all the sufferings, traumas and losses of war. If it ends with hope, it’s only that somehow, afterward, there are survivors who cling to the possibility of life.

Symphony No. 10

And the winner is Symphony No. 10. Of all the symphonies, the Tenth has the surest punch, seeming to speak both of the private and the public, of torments and tyrants. It opens with a long Moderato, almost half of the entire piece, which dances a slow waltz, tracing desolation, despair and deep weariness of the soul. “Structurally, it is the most perfect orchestral movement [Shostakovich] never written, said bandleader Mark Wigglesworth. It is followed by a ferocious fortissimo allegro that according to the book (disputed) Testimony, was Shostakovich’s portrait of Stalin. Whatever the truth, the sheer rage unleashed in this music speaks volumes.

Shostakovich called the third movement “nocturne”, but it is in fact another waltz, full of codes. Not only is the composer’s musical monogram – DSCH – stamped throughout, but a haunting horn call traces the motto known as “Elmira,” meaning a student Shostakovich had fallen in love with. The finale begins with slow, creepy music; it ends with a provocative statement of the DSCH motto and swirling energy. The Tenth Symphony premiered on December 17, 1953; Stalin had died in March of that year.


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