Which is Shostakovich's best symphony?
Rebecca Franks shares her personal ranking of her top seven symphonies by the great Soviet composer, Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies, spanning his entire creative life from when he was a teenage student at the Petrograd (now St Petersburg) Conservatory to not long before his death in the 1970s, by which point he was internationally renowned.
Most of the Soviet composer’s symphonies were about ‘the endless battle between good and evil,’ the composer’s son Maxim told The Times; Shostakovich’s life under a communist regime was inextricably tied to his artistic output.
Here is my run-down of Shostakovich's top seven symphonies.
The best Shostakovich symphonies
7. Symphony No. 1
In seventh place Shostakovich's first symphony. Where better to start this list than at the very beginning? Perhaps it’s provocative to place Shostakovich’s earliest symphony, written when he was just 19, above the eight other symphonies omitted from this list. But the first three symphonies tend to be overlooked – and the First is more than worth a listen, even if it’s later on that Shostakovich hits his symphonic stride. After its public premiere in 1926, a few years after it was written, this was the piece that put the young Soviet composer on the international map, with conductors taking it into their repertoire.
6. Symphony No. 5
Shostakovich's fifth symphony is in sixth place. The Fifth is regularly described as Shostakovich’s most popular symphony. After the the official damning of his successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, denounced in a Pravda article titled ‘muddle instead of music’, Shostakovich needed to write something to please the Soviet authorities. The result was Symphony No. 5, his ‘practical creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism’. Yet if the finale outwardly purports to offer triumph and celebration at the conclusion, there’s more than enough ambiguity for it to be heard as a hollow victory. The relentless repetitions of the note ‘A’ in the strings tell a quite different story. It is, Shostakovich reportedly said, ‘as if someone is beating you with a stick and saying your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.’
5. Symphony No. 13
In fifth place is Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13. There’s no ambiguity in this symphony, which begins with a denunciation of anti-Semitism and Soviet indifference, with the first of five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The ‘Babi Yar’ Adagio gives the symphony its sobriquet, referring to the site where Nazis massacred Jews in 1941, and which was left without a memorial by the Russians. A fleet-footed satirical Allegretto mocks dictators who think they can stifle humour, followed by an Adagio that laments and pays tribute to the lot of women. Fear seeped into every corner of life in the Soviet Union, and it’s the subject of the Largo, before a finale that honours those who sacrificed their careers to maintain their integrity. Set for bass soloist, men’s chorus and a large orchestra, the Thirteenth is a courageous act of creative defiance that still resonates today.
4. Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 4 is in fourth place. This daring three-movement symphony is, says, the Grove Dictionary of Music, a ‘colossal synthesis of Shostakovich’s musical development to date’ – including his first three symphonies. The 29-year-old composer had nearly completed the piece, in 1936, when the critical Pravda article came out (see ‘Symphony No. 5’) but he decided not to change a note of the Fourth in response – even though it fell far from the demands of Socialist Realism. Yet at some point during the rehearsal process, the premiere was cancelled, perhaps as a result of pressure from the authorities. It wasn’t until 1961, in the decade after Stalin’s death, that the piece was heard in public. The ghost of Mahler is heard in its musical style and vast canvas (125 musicians) – and for all its dense strangeness, this symphony has risen in the public opinion since its premiere.
3. Symphony No. 15
In third place is Symphony No. 15. If all of Shostakovich’s symphonies have their bleak moments, the Fifteenth’s brand of bleakness is, well, the bleakest of all. This strange symphony skitters on the edge of absurdity and irony, its quotes from Rossini and Wagner inexplicable yet brilliant; its spare orchestration often unexpected yet always just right. Film-maker David Lynch said he was inspired by Symphony No. 15 when he made his film Blue Velvet – if you want an idea of just how weird, enigmatic and wonderful this piece is. Listen, question, just don’t expect any answers.
2. Symphony No. 8
Symphony No. 8 is in second place. The Eighth was, for pianist Sviatoslav Richter ‘the most important work’ by Shostakovich. The composer wrote the symphony in 1943, not long after the success of his Seventh ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, and under pressure to reflect the official triumphant mood after Soviet military gains over the Nazis. Shostakovich said in an interview that, ‘on the whole, it is an optimistic life-affirming work’, and the five movements do trace a journey from C minor to C major. But for many listeners, the music’s general demeanour suggests that his statement shouldn’t be taken at face value. Within this symphony is all the suffering, trauma and loss of war. If it ends in hope, it is only that somehow, afterwards, there are some survivors clinging on to the possibility of life.
1. Symphony No. 10
And the winner is the Symphony No. 10. Of all the symphonies, it’s the Tenth that packs the surest punch, seeming to speak both of the private and public, of torment and tyrants. It opens with a long Moderato, almost half the entire piece, that dances a slow waltz, tracing desolation, desperation, and deep weariness of the soul. ‘Structurally it is the most perfect single orchestral movement [Shostakovich] ever wrote,’ said conductor Mark Wigglesworth. It’s followed by a ferocious, fortissimo Allegro that, according to the (contested) book Testimony, was Shostakovich’s portrait of Stalin. Whatever the truth, the sheer rage unleashed in this music speaks volumes.
Shostakovich called the third movement a ‘nocturne’, but in fact it is another waltz, one filled with codes. Not only is the composer’s musical monogram – DSCH – stamped all over it, but a haunting horn call traces the so-called ‘Elmira’ motto, signifying a student with whom Shostakovich had fallen in love. The finale begins with slow, chilling music; it ends with a defiant statement of the DSCH motto and whirling energy. The Tenth Symphony was premiered on 17 December 1953; Stalin had died in March that year.