An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13

Conductor Vasily Petrenko's analysis of Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony 'Babi Yar'

Published: October 24, 2019 at 9:00 am

Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’ Op. 113 (1962)

Premiered: Moscow 1962


Banned after only two performances, Symphony No. 13 remains a work of astonishing daring and protest. In setting Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem ‘Babi Yar’, a memorial to Ukrainian Jews slaughtered by Nazis near Kiev, the composer provoked the authorities before a note had been played.

VASILY PETRENKO: 'This was Shostakovich’s last big clash with the State. Mvravinsky refused to conduct it, two basses cancelled, the choir threatened to cancel and eventually Yevtushenko was forced to “rewrite” the poetry.

Shostakovich had always closely identified with Jews and Jewish music. In this work he took amazing texts and made very beautiful pieces from them. Anti-semitism was rife in 1960s Russia, and remains rife to this day. The state of Israel had not long been founded; people felt a sense of outrage, Jerusalem was holy territory for the Orthodox church.

‘There’s an interesting relationship between this piece and Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, the same cast and interactive structure with narrator. I believe he knew the work. The end is very painful: in the poem Career the poet says I’m fulfilling my career by not doing it.

The less attention you give to the formal, public part of your career, the better you will be remembered. That’s why the final waltz leads us up to the stratosphere. He had confidence that when he died, he would be remembered, he knew he had not wasted his life.’

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.’

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