The Tenth Symphony belongs to the most personal autobiographical works of Dmitri Shostakovich. Eight years separate its appearance from the completion of its predecessor, the Ninth Symphony, which was expected to embody the apotheosis of victory, but instead there appeared in it something queer and ambiguous, triggering perplexity and dissatisfaction amid critics. The ensuing party decree of 1948 denounced the music of Shostakovich as formalistic and harmful. The composer was subjected to vehement strictures, and peers began to “re-educate” and “grill” him on numerous party meetings. He was dismissed from the Conservatory on the ground that the education of young musicians could not be entrusted to a “highbrow formalist”.
For a few years, Shostakovich withdrew into himself. To support himself, he wrote film scores, composed the oratorio Song of the Forests, the cantata The Sun Shines over Our Motherland, choir poems on verses by revolutionary poets. And then the Tenth appeared! Forty-eight minutes of tragedies, terror, despair and violence … and finally – a two-minute triumph!
From the late seventies onward, the most commonly accepted interpretation of this Shostakovich symphony is that it represents a depiction of the Stalinist regime in Russia, during which between eight to twenty million people found their deaths, and the rest lived in constant fear. Surely Shostakovich knew this from his own bitter experience – publicly denounced and rejected, he was declared an ‘unreliable person’. Most of his friends and colleagues disappeared without a trace and never came back. The horror of these years and the widespread relief that ensued after Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953 are certainly enshrined in the program of his Tenth Symphony.
The first movement of the symphony begins in a lugubrious and austere tone; then the stern reflection recedes, and a light theme tentatively appears, from which a waltzing rhythm emerges as the initial sprouts of timid hope. The second movement is a Scherzo, not quite typical of Shostakovich. Unlike the fully “evil” analogous movements in his previous symphonies, here, besides the inhuman march with its fanfares and inexorable motion, which sweeps away everything in its path, there are also opposing forces of struggle and resistance. Not surprisingly, the oboes and the clarinets intone a melody which almost identically repeats the motif from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov: the people which had to endure so much, was still alive. A fierce battle rages and covers all three sections of the scherzo. The extreme tension of the struggle ushers in the next movement – the third – which for many years has been considered the most enigmatic of the entire symphony. It contains encoded motifs based on the Latin initial of his friends Elmira Nazirova and Nelly Kravetz, and the entire movement is pervaded by the theme-monogram, or a theme-autograph on the name of Shostakovich himself, which is a vivid expression of the artist’s reflections on his experiences and re-examination of everything happening. In a slow introduction, which initially interrogative and uncertain, the theme of the work’s finale emerges. But then a trumpet signal marks the onset of the main subject, which is full of light, soaring and expansive, and incorporates thematic material from the scherzo. After the general pause of the climax, the signature-subject is stated, which can be heard continually until the recapitulation. It grows to become defining and ultimately triumphs. This is the triumph of the individual over the heartless, anti-humane regime.
The premiere of the Tenth Symphony took place on 17 December 1953 in Leningrad under the direction of Evgeniy Mravinski.