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Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93

The Stats

Running time: 50-60 minutes, four movements

Moderato
Allegro
Allegretto – Largo – Piú mosso
Andante – Allegro – L’istesso tempo

Turbulent Times

Greyscale portrait of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. He has circular black-rimmed glasses and is wearing a suit.
Greyscale portrait of composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

Dmitri Shostakovich finished Symphony No.10 in 1953, in the months after the death of dictator Joseph Stalin.

Shostakovich had a tumultuous relationship with the Soviet regime. He was awarded the Stalin Award on two occasions… but was also publicly denounced on two occasions. The second time he was condemned, he was in the company of composers such as Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian and lost his teaching position at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

During Stalin’s time in power, many of his perceived enemies were banished to Siberian prisons or made to disappear under mysterious circumstances. Somehow Shostakovich was able to navigate this dangerous time and make it through to the other side, though not without significant mental stress.

Off the Record

Cover of the book 'Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich', written by Solomon Volkov who claimed they were recounted to him Dmitri Shostakovich.
Cover of the book ‘Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich’, written by Solomon Volkov, who claimed the quotes within were recounted to him Dmitri Shostakovich.

Shostakovich was tight-lipped about the inspiration behind Symphony No.10. After all he went through, can you blame him?

In 1979, Shostakovich’s former student Solomon Volkov released a book supposedly containing the composer’s memoirs. Testimony had a mixed reception: musicologists doubted its credibility but friends of the composer indicated the book’s contents seemed accurate. It was published four years after Shostakovich’s death, so we’ll never know for sure.

In Testimony, Shostakovich is quoted as saying: ‘I did depict Stalin in music in my next Symphony, the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the Symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years.’

Deciphering Shostakovich’s Musical Language

Symphony No.10 features a kind of musical code. The composer built a recurring motif on the four notes D-E flat-C-B. In German music notation, these are referred to as D-S-C-H. ‘D’ is the first letter of Dmitri, and ‘SCH’ are the first three letters of the German transliteration of Shostakovich (Schostakowitsch). This musical autograph appears in a number of Shostakovich’s late compositions.  

The composer incorporated a second encoded message into the third movement, devoted to former student Elmira Nazirova. He informed her of this theme in their correspondence. The theme is built on notes E-A-E-D-A, and if you swap out the middle three notes for their equivalent in the music language solfa, it spells out E-la-mi-re-A.

Some music historians believe the main theme of the Allegro movement is meant to represent Stalin. Whether or not this is true, it certainly has an imposing, militaristic character and moves at breakneck speed!

Conductors on the Symphony

It’s not a happy symphony. It’s like seeing a scene of devastation after a battle. [Stalin] is gone but what he has left behind is terrible, all the destroyed lives of artists… Look at the harm he has done to a country that had such a rich culture. You see the result of what the system has done.

Andris Nelsons

The second movement] demonstrates frightening power. It goes like a tsunami in a few minutes in front of your eyes and leaves no doubt that it will be back. Like the power of nature, something that people cannot control.

Valery Gergiev

David Owen Norris’s Illustrated Guide to Shostakovich Symphony No 10

YouTube credit: London Symphony Orchestra

Experience the exhilarating energy of the Australian Youth Orchestra when they perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 under the baton of Eivind Aadland.

Australian Youth Orchestra in Concert
14 April 7:30pm AWST
Perth Concert Hall

Book here

For audiences outside Perth, the concert will be available to stream live and on-demand for free!

Australian Youth Orchestra in Concert
14 April 7:30pm AWST, 9:30pm AEST
Australian Digital Concert Hall

Stream live