Notes by TŌN cellist Lucas Button
Shostakovich and Soviet Socialism
Shostakovich’s complicated relationship with Soviet authorities is one of the hot topics in music history over the last hundred years. Joseph Stalin’s regime expected artists to maintain a highly conservative approach, looking to works of the past to project an idealistic, uplifting image of socialism. We do not know exactly how much Shostakovich was emotionally affected by the regime’s strict rules for Soviet artists. (The 1979 book Testimony, claimed by its author, Solomon Volkov, to be an authentic compilation of Shostakovich’s memoirs, quotes the composer as expressing deep pain and confrontational stances against the Soviet regime. Several historians have strongly repudiated Volkov’s work, claiming Testimony to be a farce.) We certainly know he fluctuated in and out of the Soviet regime’s good graces over the 1930s and ’40s for works that provoked Soviet ideals. He followed each instance with a public apology and a series of less offensive works in order to avoid harsh punishment.
Stalin died in March of 1953, and the Tenth Symphony was premiered later that year. With Stalin out of the picture, the Soviet regime was somewhat more lenient to the work of artists. It is possible Shostakovich used this to his advantage; some claim the intensely rhythmic, militaristic second movement to be a depiction of Stalin. Whether or not Shostakovich had this in mind, it is impossible to ignore the range of emotional content in this piece: the brooding, searching quality of the opening of the first movement, the drive of the second movement, the ominous clock-ticking of the third movement, and his oft-used DSCH (his initials put into musical notes) to sign off at the end of the final movement.
Tension Throughout the World
Composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, a Shostakovich contemporary and fellow Soviet, said about the Tenth Symphony: “I am deeply convinced that the conflict it portrays arises from the tension now existing throughout the world.” Perhaps we do not need a specific story in the composer’s words to form our own ideas about this work. Most of us have an idea what a tense world looks like, whether from contemporary context or an informed historical perspective.