Symphonies formed the throughline of Dmitri Shostakovich’s career; you can almost read his biographies, personal and musical, in them. His second orchestral composition became the scherzo of his First Symphony (he nicknamed it the “Symphony-Grotesque”); after getting slammed by Stalin, he withheld his Fourth from performance for over twenty years; his Fifth was subtitled “A Soviet composer’s response to just criticism.” (The label was not Shostakovich’s and it’s not clear whether he believed it or not. It still fucking owns.) The Seventh was treated as a monument to the Battle of Leningrad; the Thirteenth used the poems of the occasionally official, occasionally dissident poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. His last symphony, the Fifteenth, was completed only four years before he died and he never wrote any large-scale works after that. All together, the symphonies shift on balances of public and private, experiment and tradition, consonance and dissonance, good and bad.
The symphonies break into distinct periods. The first three are the work of a student: the First is wildly experimental and European, the Second and Third the work of a Good Communist celebrating Good Communist Things. (They are whatever the late 1920s equivalent of “woke” is.) Shostakovich develops his own style in the Fourth through the Sixth, a style that blends a high degree of technical skill, a Mahlerian range of orchestration, and his own particular and awkward approach to melody. (Shostakovich’s opposite number would be Franz Schubert; if you’re looking for beautiful, aristocratic melodies, he’s the one you want. Schubert belonged to 19th century Vienna, and to my ears, he never got out of it; Shostakovich is from our bloody 20th century and he’ll last longer.) The Seventh through the Thirteenth Symphonies don’t develop that style any further but apply it in an astonishing range of ways: the quick and funny Ninth, the choral Thirteenth, the epic sweep of the Eighth and Tenth, the Hans Zimmerian simplicity of the Seventh, and (I’m convinced) the Fuck You to the Party of the Twelfth, made just after he joined up: “I’ll show you a bombastic patriotic piece of shit, assholes.”
Like Stanley Kubrick’s final two films, Shostakovich’s final two symphonies both break from the past and needed that past to become; they were unlike anything he’d done before and no one else could have made them. Beyond this, what they have in common is a meditation on death, one that produces vastly different results: the Fourteenth (1969) is a head-on confrontation with death’s finality, comparable only to Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body” in my personal canon; the Fifteenth (1971) is so much quieter, accepting, less angry, and almost comic in apprehending the approaching end.
The Fourteenth opens with a twisting high melody, haunting, isolated, gradually picking up a mournful accompaniment from the rest of the strings. The symphony starts off already dead
and then the bass comes in with Federico García Lorca’s “Those hundred lovers are asleep forever beneath the dry earth,” the first of four poets (he gets the next movement, then six by Guilliame Apollinaire, one by Wilhelm Küchelbecker, and then Rainer Maria Rilke closes out the symphony) Shostakovich sets here. The moment is arresting but static, arrested really; without passion or rage, without mourning, the reality of the way death brings everything to a halt, the two-note motives of the strings providing no relief. Imagine it playing over the final long passage of blackness at the end of The Sopranos and you have an idea of the impact here; and Shostakovich starts where David Chase ends.
All the poems are about death, often from the perspective of either the dying or the newly dead. None offer anything like comfort or hope. (Shostakovich was diagnosed with polio in 1969 and wrote the whole symphony while in the hospital.) Although he used only Russian translations, carefully setting the different meters of the poems gives the movements a different feel but a similar emotional impact. There are no honorable deaths here and no life beyond the grave, and there is no uplifting music here either. Unique among the symphonies and in fact among almost all his compositions, the Fourteenth has no key signature, and even incorporates twelve-tone rows. (Not just because of Soviet musicology but also personal dislike, Shostakovich almost never used these.) Most of the melodies go downward (or sideways, in the twelve-tone ones); if they go up, they arrive at hysteria.
Shostakovich wasn’t sure what to label the Fourteenth; it belongs to a tricky, between-genre zone, the symphony-oratorio, less intimate and more unified than a song cycle, less a work of pure music and more theatrical than a symphony; the model for this work was one of his favorite and most influential compositions, Mahler’s The Song of the Earth. (Shostakovich said that if he had one hour to live, he wished the last thing he heard would be the final movement, “The Farewell.”) There are long lyricless passages in the Fourteenth, and a musical unity in the way that opening passage comes back in the bass at the end. Yet the eleven movements are eleven distinct settings of eleven distinct texts, his widest departure from symphonic structure. (Symphonic forces, too: he scored this for 19 strings, percussion, bass and soprano soloists. That’s all.) Distinct but not independent, settings but not songs; listening to any one of these movements on its own feels somehow incomplete, missing a beginning and an end. Only with movements leading in and out does each one feel right. (“My choice of poems is probably quite random. But it seems to me that they are given unity through the music,” Shostakovich wrote.)
The chamber-like reduction to strings and percussion give Shostakovich a lot of opportunity to display his technical craft. The winding lines of strings and soprano in Apollinaire’s “The Suicide” (“Three lilies, three lilies by my grave/Where no cross stands”) have a Bach-level purity to them, calling back perhaps to Shostakovich’s own 24 Preludes and Fugues of almost two decades earlier. The exactness of the counterpoint keeps the music and the lyrics away from prettiness and bend it toward necessity. The first lines are a judgment, and as the poem continues, the lilies grow from the suicide’s wounds and heart and “lacerate my mouth”; the music offers no further judgment, and no mercy either. No one expects any help, not even the singer.
When Shostakovich goes more emotional, he goes all the way, staying clear of the middle zone of appropriate displays of grief. Partly from Mahler’s influence, partly from a lifetime writing music for films and theater, and partly because the motherfucker was Russian, Shostakovich had a lifelong Expressionist streak, always willing to sacrifice musical beauty or balance for emotional impact. That’s everywhere in the Fourteenth, as he pushes the strings and the voices past music into sound and crying. (Early in his career, he said that the sound of a composition came to him before the notes.) In Apollinaire’s “Madam, Look!” the soprano’s laughter goes way past any kind of Pagliaccian “laughing sob” into something that can’t be contained by art:
(“Madam, look!/You have lost something–“/”Ah! It’s nothing! It’s only my heart./Pick it up quickly./If I want, I will give it back./If I want, I will take it again, believe me./And I laugh, laugh at love, which cut down by death.”) Just as the form of the Fourteenth comprises both song and symphony, its technique is both rigorous and uncontained.
Shostakovich used percussion far more than other composers; it was never something to shade in the rest of the orchestra but had its own character in his compositions, not so much a line of music but of feeling. In the Fourteenth, it works as punctuation and exclamation: tolling bells and clicks like pacing are all through this work, heightening it like the amplified sound of punches in a Simpson/Bruckheimer joint–and the most dramatic one comes at the end. As percussion goes beyond notes, the experience of the Fourteenth goes beyond appreciation into confrontation. That’s what connects it to “The Body” and The Act of Seeing. . ., that willingness to see death as final and that refusal to sublimate it into anything else, the refusal of compassion or sense; when Shostakovich introduced the first performance, he finished by saying “Death awaits us all. I do not see anything good about such an end to our lives, and this is what I am trying to convey in my work.”
Coming into the final movements, the opening theme returns, now as high as possible, almost literally ethereal. The soprano comes back, not with the cries of “Madam, look!” but with the flat statements of “Three lilies,” and Rilke’s lines couldn’t be simpler or more unavoidable: “The poet was dead.” The strings shift into something darker and more aching (Elliot Goldenthal has ripped this passage off a few times) as the song concludes, but that’s only the setup for the final punch in the last minute of the Fourteenth.
Everything about the Fifteenth Symphony is conventional, especially in Shostakovich’s oeuvre, except its psychology: four movements (short, long, short, long, with a Largo and a Scherzo as the middle movements. The only change here is that the Largo comes before the Scherzo) for full orchestra. There’s nothing surprising in the orchestrations and the only thing that connects it to the Fourteenth (musically) is a lot of solo passages; any brief excerpt from this could come from the Seventh-through-Thirteenth block of symphonies. Yet before two minutes pass, something strange happens:
Where the Fourteenth Symphony sets texts, the Fifteenth sets quotes, from the musical life of Shostakovich and others. He did this throughout his career, and often the most quotetastic works were the high points: the Eighth String Quartet, the Tenth Symphony, and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, which rides out on an allusion to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Musicologists have written many learned papers and built careers and schools out of decoding his works (the Shostakovich the Secret Dissident school took over from Shostakovich, That Darned Communist! a few decades ago) but as ever, I’ll go for the simplest, most practice-oriented explanation: Shostakovich was extraordinarily facile in writing music–he could know an entire symphony before he started writing, and wrote quickly, more a process of transcription than composition. (He also wrote incidental music for film and theater all his life; producing music quickly without caring overmuch about originality is a job requirement.) My guess is that he always heard music, his own and others’, and he mentally assembled his works from that music; it would be a massive and displacing effort for him not to quote. If he was at his best when he was most allusive, that may be more a matter of being creatively “in the zone” rather than any kind of ideological or anyway extramusical point.
The Fifteenth is positively rollicking at times (esp. the first and third movements) and then it switches into brooding, alternating between a solemn funeral march and a high-spirited wake. Sometimes (towards the end of the second movement), the music doesn’t feel sad so much as lost and exhausted.
Shostakovich was the most emotional composer I’ve ever heard, in part because he doesn’t do what that adjective usually means in art. Usually, “emotion” as critical praise means exalted, grand, Calculon-like expressions of emotion, and although Shostakovich could certainly do that (see above), no one did what could be called the everyday emotions better than him: bemusement, nervousness, uncertainty, worry. One biographical detail that correlates to this temperament in his music: pretty much everyone who ever met him remarked on his physical nervousness, his hands always in motion, touching his face, fidgeting. The Fifteenth puts all these emotions related to death next to each other and makes that seem necessary. He’s probably right.
All his life, Shostakovich had a sense of humor and a sense of resignation that feels distinctly Russian, and made him the right composer to face death this way. What Westerners consider absurd (although less so every day now) was everyday life for Russians, especially those who lived through the 20th century. (Shostakovich missed being arrested and most likely executed in Stalin’s purges because his arrest was scheduled for a Monday, and the officer set to arrest him was arrested over the weekend.) You don’t so much struggle against this absurdity as accommodate it and laugh at it, because what else is there to do? Solemn art in a silly world is its own kind of lie. This sort of humor goes all through his work, usually expressed with his wild and goofy Scherzo movements; you can also hear it in the waltz that opens and closes Eyes Wide Shut. In the Fifteenth, the humor accommodates death as the absurd fate no one gets to escape.
Resignation, too, comes back again and again in Shostakovich, though not with humor’s consistency. It’s all through the Fifteenth; especially compared to the Fourteenth, the detail of emotion is greater but the range is narrower. He doesn’t go for the extremes of his earlier symphonies (the Fourteenth and also the Fifth, the Eighth, and the Tenth); the contrasts are there, but a bit muted. (The quick and effective First and Ninth symphonies are the models here.) Even when he builds marches to a climax, there’s always the sense that he could go farther and chooses not to. Combine the senses of humor and resignation with the quotation and especially self-quotation, and the Fifteenth feels like a retrospective: looking back on a life and finding it lived, if not well then well enough, a Paul Giamatti facial expression portrayed in music.
The final movement opens with something not Wagnerian but straight-up Wagner, the “Fate” motive from Götterdämmerung. As in the second movement, there’s a build that stops short of maximum volume and emotion; and in another deeply weird turn, the music doesn’t go away (still some minutes to go before the end) but just hangs around, almost in a dance, almost at peace, calm on the surface but a little bit on edge before the hard turn into the ending, a shift as drastic but not as dramatic as the end of the Fourteenth.
Listen to the final minutes of both symphonies and hear the distance, the journey that Shostakovich somehow traveled in a few years. The Fourteenth had to come first, and it had to be so desolate and unsparing; only looking straight at death there made it possible for him to accept it, maybe even smile at it in the Fifteenth; the latter follows the former in emotion, not in music.
Clicking percussion takes us into the final minute of the Fourteenth, the strings start to build and for the only time in the symphony, the bass and soprano sing together, Rilke’s lines: “All-powerful is death/It keeps watch/Even in the hour of our happiness./At moments of higher life it suffers within us/Awaits us and thirsts for us/And weeps within us.” The spareness of the Fourteenth makes the next and last moment, where the volume goes to eleven, stand out even more. The percussion sounds unmistakably like gunshots, the strings and drums come crashing down and then just stop. Think of John Gregory Dunne’s description of a friend’s death, and perhaps his own: “a moment of terror as he realized the inevitable outcome of the accident, and then an instant later the eternal dark.”
The Fifteenth ends in a longer, calmer, and almost funky way. He signals it with orchestral stings from the second movement (twelve-note chords, dissonant as fuck) and then shifts into another self-reference: the skipping percussion that ended the tricky Fourth Symphony and that he occasionally brought back (hear also: the Second Cello Concerto); here, running over an long chord in the strings, it’s a goodbye instead of a finale, the best ending in all of music. (Oh all right: Iannis Xenakis’ The Legend of Er has the best beginning.) Instead of the firing squad of the Fourteenth, the Fifteenth ends with the sound of someone with his bags packed looking around the apartment of his life (no one stays here forever), checking to make sure the lights are all off, and closing the door behind him with a smile before he departs for whatever’s next.