Musicology

Shostakovich’s Patriotic 10th Symphony Was Secretly Very Unpatriotic

Undetected, the Russian composer etched anti-Stalinist codes into his melodies

The premiere of Symphony #7 by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1942. Source

I was nineteen, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed when I arrived at our first orchestra rehearsal for Dmitri Shostakovich’s tenth symphony. It was the only piece by the Russian composer I studied and performed in my six years of music school, yet its symbols and secret signals remain burned into my brain 15 years later.

Shostakovich is one of the most lauded composers of the 20th century. He was not only an incredible orchestrator but also an artist whose work was at the mercy of censorship from Joseph Stalin’s Russia. His book of compositions is a remarkable time capsule of creative struggle and triumph.

Usually, the symphony that gets the most attention from the composer’s repertoire is the fifth symphony, a stunner that was a veiled commentary on Russian oppression and received a 30-minute standing ovation at its 1937 debut.

But many don’t realize that the tenth symphony had similar messages. In fact, the anti-Stalinist secrets woven into the manuscript went largely undetected during the composer’s life.

What were they?

Why composers were superstitious about 10th symphonies

To understand the context of Shostakovich’s tenth, let’s rewind a bit to the premiere of his ninth symphony.

Stalin, who saw himself as a poignant music critic, had been expecting a grandiose ninth symphony comparable to other romantic-era composers (even though the romantic era had ended over 50 years prior).

Ninth symphonies were supposed to be epic, and Ludwig Van Beethoven set the bar here. His ninth symphony — a 70-minute warhorse with a chorus composed whilst fully deaf — was basically the 1824 version of Beychella.

It was a flawless production that rattled composers for decades to come, especially since Beethoven died a few years later and never got to write a 10th symphony.

“Beethoven’s ninth symphony was basically the 1824 version of Beychella.”

But then a strange trend began to arise. Franz Schubert also died after writing his ninth. Antonin Dvořák did too, as did Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Mahler. Anton Bruckner actually dropped dead while trying to finish his ninth. Were epic ninth symphonies cursed?

We don’t know if Shostakovich was superstitious, but he did love to stick his thumb up at tradition. Instead of an epic tour de force, Shostakovich instead penned a light, jovial five-movement appetizer of a ninth symphony that defied expectations. Deemed “not reflective of the Soviet Union,” the work was censored less than a year later, and Stalin publicly shamed Shostakovich in 1948, boycotting his work and future commissions.

Shostakovich in 1950. Source

Shostakovich was despondent and became suicidal, wondering if the curse of the ninth symphony would take him out after all. Licking his wounds, he didn’t premiere another symphony for about five years. But sketches for his tenth symphony were apparently floating around this entire time. After Stalin’s death in March of 1953, the composer rushed to complete the tenth, and it was debuted in December of that same year.

The secret solfege codes in Shostakovich’s tenth symphony

#1: Shostakovich’s initials (DSCH)

Why carve your initials into a random wet slab of concrete when you can instead etch them into a composition that will last for all of time?

Shostakovich turned his initials into a motif by employing the German solfege syllables D, Es, C, and H. (H refers to B-natural and B refers to B-flat in German solfege.) The German spelling of the composer’s name is “Dmitri Schostakowitsch”, making DSCH an appropriate shorthand.

The DSCH Motif. Source

This motif appeared in many of Shostakovich’s late works, and the scholarly journal dedicated to Shostakovich studies is even called the DSCH Journal, It’s also carved into one other place: Shostakovich’s tombstone.

Always an introspect, Shostakovich threads this motif into different settings throughout the symphony to express his emotional state. Often, the melody is buried under dark, thick orchestrations to symbolize oppression. The composer reprised the motif for several other works in his late period.

#2: Elmira Nazirova

Urban legend has it that Shostakovich was infatuated with an Azerbaijani student of his named Elmira Nazirova, who went on to become a successful concert pianist. With similar treatment as his own initials, the composer appears to have etched Elmira’s name into the symphony’s third movement by blending French and German solfege: “E La Mi Re A”.

Elmira motif. Source

🚨 French Horn solo alert! 🚨 (As someone with two degrees in classical French Horn, I am legally required to issue announcements like this whenever a horn solo is within 100 meters.) Elmira’s theme is first presented by an unaccompanied horn, then repeats eleven additional times throughout the movement.

The solo rides open fourths and fifths, giving the melody a hollowness and ability to drift between different tonalities. Also, since a French horn’s bell faces backwards, there’s an inherently distant, ethereal quality to the sound.

Musically, the DSCH and Elmira themes appear separately at first. The motifs then appear increasingly closer to one another in a call-and-response type structure as the movement goes on, almost as if they’re dancing with one another. They never fully intertwine, and the Elmira motif vanishes after the third movement.

Almost 40 years later, Nazirova denied any romantic involvement in a 1990 interview. She did however sit next to him at the premiere of the tenth symphony, indicating she was at least in some way his muse.

#3: Stalin himself

Rumor has it that Shostakovich wrote the second movement after learning of Stalin’s death. According to Testimony, a book of memoirs supposedly dictated by the composer himself:

“I did depict Stalin in my next symphony, the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that’s the basis.” — Testimony, p. 141

I say supposedly because historical inaccuracies have been discovered in Testimony over the years, and some musicologists say it’s an unreliable text. Pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, a peer of Shostakovich at the time, also stated she had already seen a completed manuscript for the tenth symphony two years earlier, adding to the chronological confusion.

We’ll never be able to 100% confirm, but if Shostakovich saw Stalin as oppressive and diabolical, the wild second movement would certainly embody that. It’s aggressive, explosive, and packs a show’s worth of notes into barely four minutes.

Here’s a performance of that movement performed by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, who was later tapped to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic and still does today. The double-sized ensemble delivers dizzying energy in this display at BBC Proms; I’ve linked this video to start right before the madness begins.

Final takeaways

Lemme tell ya: Blasting the DSCH theme on the French horn as loudly as possible at the end of this symphony is very fun. But it was learning about the composer’s struggles and musical codes that stayed with me for years to come — a lifelong perk of reading about and studying classical music.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever have a 100% clear picture of what Shostakovich intended to say. But it’s fun to imagine the composer was trying to tell us something from between the lines. And in times of darkness or despair, learning about how artists of the past navigated adversity can give us feelings of inspiration and hope.

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