Shostakovich and the Classical Canon

It struck me recently that the music of Dimitri Shostakovich seems to turn up on orchestra programs with more and more frequency these days. His string quartets are also heard more often than they used to be. It's become apparent to me that over the past 30 or 40 years, Shostakovich's music has quietly gone about establishing its place in the canon. Not that Shostakovich's music always goes about anything "quietly."
In the 1960s there were a small handful of works--the First and Fifth Symphonies, The Age of Gold, perhaps the two piano concertos--that one could count on hearing from time to time. But anything else was a rarity. The received wisdom, particularly from the opinion-makers of that time who thought that any music written in the middle of the twentieth century had to be thorny, cerebral, and atonal, was that Shostakovich was a Russian patsy who wrote bombastic "here come the tanks" music of little intellectual or emotional value.

It took time to turn the tide, as well as the passionate advocacy of certain musicians--Bernstein was one, and Rostropovich perhaps the key one. I remember a time in the early 1970s when, over a two-month period on the radio station I was operating in Syracuse, I programmed every work of Shostakovich that existed on a recording that I could get my hands on. Some listeners loved it, some were puzzled by it, a few accused me of communist sympathies, but the most frequent reaction I got from listeners was one of surprise. Surprise at the immense range and variety of the music--and the emotional complexity of it.

Gradually, through more and more exposure, the music of Shostakovich began to crawl into the repertoire. The Fifth Symphony was followed by the Tenth, then the Seventh, Sixth, Ninth, and so on. The Piano Quintet, then the remarkable Second Piano Trio and the string quartets came, along with the two violin concertos and the two cello concertos, and then the preludes and fugues for piano. And now, I think, we have arrived at a point where the music of Shostakovich is here to stay, a permanent part of that odd thing we call the accepted canon of classical music.

It's true that Shostakovich was an uneven composer, and that some of his music is not likely to ever achieve an important place in the repertoire. But at its best, the complexity, deep emotional explorations, searing intensity, wit, pain, joy, sarcasm, irony, and raw power of his music make it a body of art that grows on us the more we hear it. Take the conclusion of the Fifth Symphony, for instance. Once thought of as a shallow portrayal of the triumph of human spirit--and, perhaps, of communist society--it proves, on close listening, to be anything but. Behind that brass and timpani fanfare that seems to be the triumph is a stabbing, repeated, intense high A in the violins. As Rostropovich once explained to me, there is an old Russian tradition of "smiling because there is someone holding a knife to your back, ordering you to smile.  That high A is the knife."

If you are not familiar with the music of Shostakovich, I'd like to recommend as starting points a basic list of standard works beyond those most frequently heard, along with some recordings that I find particularly satisfying. I have avoided recommending "historic" recordings by older-generation conductors, which are more appropriate as second performances in a collection for listeners already experienced with this composer. Others are, of course, welcome to add to my list--that's what is fun about this blog!

Symphony No. 5 -- There are many fine recordings of this work, but both of Rostropovich's find a power and depth, and a poignancy in the slow movement, that seem to me to go beyond others.

Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad" -- I'll admit to what some might find a conflict of interest here, because I was involved with the planning and production of it, but for me no performance of this work equals the Bernstein/Chicago Symphony rendering on DGG. It is one of the few recordings that I can hear only a moment of on the radio and immediately identify, so strong is its emotional imprint. Some critics find this symphony bombastic; Bernstein finds the emotional truth and horror beneath the "bombast."

Symphony No. 8 -- For me this is one of the composer's supreme masterpieces. If I'm asked to recommend one work to someone who only knows the Fifth Symphony and wishes to go further, I generally say "either the Eighth or the Tenth Symphony." As a depiction of the horror and desolation that is war, as a protest against Stalin (or any ruthless, power-mad dictator), and as a searing and complex portrayal of humankind, this work is virtually unequalled. Its very equivocal ending, typical of many of Shostakovich's later works, refuses to give us an answer--whether pessimistic or optimistic, defiant or resigned--to the horrible decisions made by those in power. I love the recordings by Valery Gergiev, Rostropovich, and Semyon Bychkov.

Symphony No. 10 -- Composed immediately after the death of Stalin, this is in some ways Shostakovich's most triumphant statement, though of course not without its moments of bitterness and sadness. But the final moments, with the composer's own motto (D-S-C-H, his initials in the Germanic translation of his name, Schostakowich - D - E-flat - C - B in German notation) blaring out over and over again, allows us to share, perhaps, the composer's victory at having survived Stalin. I would recommend Solti and Chicago on this one--a very powerful performance.

Symphony No. 13 -- The "Babi Yar" Symphony, setting poems of Yevtushenko, including the famed protest at Soviet anti-Semitism, is an immensely powerful and deeply moving work. Recordings by Rostropovich, Yuri Temirkanov, and Solti are all very good.

String Quartet No. 8 -- This is the most personal of the composer's quartets, searingly laying out his deepest pain at his conflicted life and relationship with the Communist Party and a government that emotionally tortured him. And it's another piece that makes very moving use of the D-S-C-H motif. There are many good recordings of this, but my recommendation would be the Emerson Quartet on DGG.

Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor -- A work that no serious music lover should miss, this was written in part to protest the horrors suffered by Jews under both Hitler and Stalin, and is filled with Jewish-influenced moments. To me it has always been one of the most extraordinary pieces of chamber music that I know. Do not listen to it if your view is that classical music should be relaxing and upbeat. But if you want to be transformed by an emotionally profound interaction with a major work of art, then this is for you. There are a number of fine recordings of this work, but if I had to recommend one it would be the DGG disc by Martha Argerich, Gidon Kremer, and Mischa Maisky.

There is much more; Shostakovich's output is considerable. I left out the remarkable concertos, many other great symphonies, song cycles, and incidental and dramatic music. The point of the above list was not to be complete--only to be a starting point, the first destinations on what I hope might become a lifetime journey with the music of Shostakovich for those of you who are not already on that road.

October 17, 2008 3:12 PM | | Comments (3)



Like a lot of young musicians, I got to know Shostakovich initially by youth orchestra performances of the 5th symphony and Festive Overture, but over time came to know and love most of the major symphonies and concertos. I'm glad Shostakovich has become a more central part of the repertoire, but oddly enough I think this has occurred more in the U.S. than in Russia. During the two years I lived in Moscow (2004-6) I heard very little Shostakovich, despite being an obsessive concertgoer. You couldn't swing a dead cat without hearing the Tchaikovsky 6th, but the only Shostakovich I managed to hear were the 7th, 8th and 10th symphonies, Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk and his oratorio "Song of the Forest," (mediocre but novel), and this was his 100th anniversary year. Not bad, I guess, but I actually heard more Mahler during those two years. I recall Rostropovich saying that he was concerned that young Russians were growing up not knowing Shostakovich.

This is so timely for me. I've had his 11th Symphony on constant play! Thanks for the tips. I've got to track down that Piano Trio.


I'm surprised you didn't mention Haitink's recordings - I really treasure them, especially his 10th sym, and his 15th sym. And I also love Rostropovich's NSO recording of the 11th.

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on October 17, 2008 3:12 PM.

Power Questions Are the Wrong Questions was the previous entry in this blog.

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