Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Shostakovich Symphony No. 10

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1974
Dmitri Shostakovich in 1974

After Dmitri Shostakovich’s death in August of 1975 and his “posthumous rehabilitation” by the Soviet authorities (do you love that phrase “posthumous rehabilitation” as much as I do?), the Soviet authorities declared that their dear, departed Dmitri Dmitriyevich was:

“Soviet Russia’s most loyal musical son.” 

Back in 1975, who could argue with them? The “public” Shostakovich – the Shostakovich we read about in newspapers and saw on his rare trips outside of the Soviet Union – said whatever he was told to say and did what he was told to do by the Soviet authorities. He publically debased himself and begged forgiveness for his “artistic sins” after having been censured in both 1936 and 1948. In 1960, at the age of 54, he joined the Communist Party when Khrushchev told him to do so. He allowed his name to be signed at the bottom of anti-Western rants and editorials, while he fidgeted, twitched, and, literally, smoked himself to death.

Shostakovich’s censure in 1948 was particularly agonizing. Just seven years before he had been proclaimed “A Hero of the Soviet People” for having stayed in Leningrad during the beginning of the siege and for having composed his Symphony No. 7, the so-called “Leningrad” Symphony. 

Shostakovich in 1941, on the cover of TIME magazine in his fireman’s helmet during the siege of Leningrad
Shostakovich in 1941, on the cover of TIME magazine in his fireman’s helmet during the siege of Leningrad

But in 1948, Joseph Stalin decided that it was time to bring to heel those members of the military, the government, artists, and intellectuals who had become emboldened by victory and contact with the West during the World War II. So Shostakovich – among others – was made “an example of.” He was accused of writing that exhibited:

“Formalism, anti-democratic tendencies that are alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes, [music] strongly reminiscent of the spirit of contemporary modernistic bourgeois music of Europe and America.”

Shostakovich was fired from his teaching jobs at the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories; his music was banned; the water was cut off to his apartment; and once again he waited at night to be arrested (he kept a small bag packed and a toothbrush and toothpaste in his jacket pocket). As he had after his censure n 1936, Shostakovich again considered suicide in 1948. 

In order to survive, Shostakovich wrote scores for industrial films and the occasional feature film. That’s right: one of the great composers of all time was reduced to doing hackwork to survive.

The Thaw and the Tenth

Joseph Stalin thumbing his nose at humanity
Joseph Stalin thumbing his nose at humanity

Joseph Stalin died at 11:50 PM on March 5, 1953.

Shostakovich understood that Stalin’s death was not going to change everything, but it certainly changed some things, and his immediate preoccupation following Stalin’s death was to release and premiere the many works he had composed and then kept hidden from sight since 1948. Bless him: Shostakovich might have been a small, frail, frightened, seemingly timid man, but his creative force was measurable in megatonnage. So a flood of unheard works by Shostakovich appeared in the months after Stalin’s death, including his Fourth String Quartet, Fifth String Quartet, the Violin Concerto No. 1, and the song cycle From Jewish Poetry.  

But the big premiere of this post-Stalin period was that of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93, composed during the summer of 1953, immediately after Stalin’s death. 

Shostakovich’s Tenth received its premiere in December 17, 1953. According to the violinist and musicologist Boris Schwarz:

“The accumulation of sorrow that Shostakovich experienced [between 1948 and 1953] came out with elemental, explosive force in his Tenth Symphony – the great work that heralded the post-Stalin liberalization of the human spirit.” …

Learn more about the 10th Symphony and Dr. Bob’s Prescribed recording on Patreon!