An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10
Conductor Vasily Petrenko guides us through the history and analysis of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony
Symphony No. 10 Op. 93 (1953)
Premiered: Leningrad, 1953
Disgraced in Andrei Zhdanov’s anti-formalist purges of 1948, Shostakovich waited eight years before presenting another symphony, and the Tenth was not performed until after Stalin’s death. Maxim Shostakovich denied author Solomon Volkov’s claim that the Allegro is a ‘portrait of Stalin’, though its power as a depiction of savagery has never been in doubt.
VASILY PETRENKO: ‘Shostakovich wrote half the Tenth Symphony before Stalin’s death, and half afterwards. There is a sense of liberation, but he knew that the demons were still in power.
After the 1948 purges, he was forced to be the secretary of the Composer’s Union, and had to sit beside Tikhon Khrenikov: can you imagine having to discuss music politely with someone who has tried to write your death sentence?
‘No. 10 is the most compact of all his conventional symphonies. There’s a perfection to the form and the contrapuntal writing. Like the Fifth, it’s a response to criticism, this time all the protest he received after Symphonies Nos 8 and 9. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the link between this symphony and his Azerbaijani composition pupil Elmira Nazirova came to light, when she opened her archive.
It’s just one example of many personal things that are probably woven into other works. In the third movement, the horns call out her name, answered by Shostakovich’s initials. We know she was his muse, but it’s impossible to tell from the letters how far the relationship went.
His writing is disputed territory too: complex, poetic – is he using metaphor or referring to actual events? He was 47 – this was his mid-life crisis. His own mortality was becoming real to him: he’d seen Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Shebalin all die, and he was feeling the effects of his own illness.’
Vasily Petrenko is, like Shostakovich, a son of Leningrad/St Petersburg, and grew up singing the composer’s songs in its Capella Boys Music School. In 1997 he won first prize in the Shostakovich Choral Conducting Competition and was made chief conductor of the St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra, during which time he took on the principal conductorship of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
On his arrival in the city in 2006, at just 30, he launched a project with Naxos to record all Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. The series has drawn international acclaim and, as the final instalment is released, he looks back on his nine-year journey.
‘To work with an orchestra on one composer for so many years has meant we could build a style, an approach to his language,’ he says. ‘At first, it felt like an exhilarating challenge: there are huge demands. Now, we are of one mind.’
Petrenko, born a year after the composer’s death, grew up in the Soviet Union. A beneficiary of its uniquely rigorous teaching system, he witnessed its dissolution when he was 15, the re-writing of history books, and even the emergence of a nostalgia for that dark era.
He’s in touch with those who remember Shostakovich, and the times through which he lived, but has experienced the Western view of this controversial figure.
‘When I conduct these symphonies in Russia, there’s still an unspoken understanding of the songs, the messages. We talk more about the composer’s personal life. When I conduct in the West, it’s important to give the historical context.
There’s still so much we don’t know; the family destroyed many letters when Shostakovich died. The State would probably have requisitioned them anyway.’
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.