Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141 (1971)

By Elizabeth Wilson

Written for the concert Behind the Curtain, performed on Oct 1, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is not far-fetched to say that the convoluted career of Shostakovich the symphonist could serve as a barometer of the political climate of Soviet communism, where ideology demanded that music, in line with the other arts, should be strictly representational. A consequence of this requirement was the emergence of a native school of criticism which foisted “socialist realist” definitions onto music and encouraged Shostakovich to make some misleading and simplistic public statements about his work.

Not surprisingly, Soviet Russians soon learned to be contemptuous of narrow interpretations and bestowed the “subtext” with more importance than the surface reality. Hence, there arose the double image of Shostakovich as an officially approved composer with a reverse “dissident” face.

By nature a man of paradox, Shostakovich proved a master of subterfuge, and invested his music with layer upon layer of multifarious meaning. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last of his symphonies, written when the ailing composer, beset by thoughts of mortality, had retreated into his inner world, and preferred to express himself in the intimate forms of the string quartet or vocal cycle.

The Fifteenth Symphony seems full of endless contradictions. To start, there is an almost disproportionate contrast between the youthful vigor and the deceptive light-heartedness of the shorter first and third movements and the tragic power of the much longer second and fourth movements. Significantly the philosophical centerpiece lies in the second movement, Adagio, which casts its long shadow on the rest of the work. One could point specifically to the utterly haunting effect produced by the reappearance towards the end of the finale of the two eerily strange chords (in woodwind answered by brass) that mark the second movement.

The first thing in the Symphony to strike ones attention is the super-abundance of quotations from Shostakovich’s own and other composers works. No doubt they arose in the process of composition as associative signals from the subconscious rather than deliberately coded messages. But all extraneous material is so naturally assimilated and woven into the fabric of Shostakovich’s music that even the most recognizable of quotations (such as from Rossini’s William Tell Overture) seem stylistically his own, and hence are completely devoid of parody. Take for instance the opening of the final: after an introduction based on Wagnerian themes, the yearning Tristan motif in the violins falls effortlessly into a nostalgic melody borrowed from a Glinka song. Here the composer treads that dangerous borderline between a detached but genuine sensibility and banal sentimentality. Through maintaining this subtle balance Shostakovich achieves the finale’s overall sense of the valedictory as a summation of transformed inner experience.

The explanations of the Symphony’s meaning afforded by the composer in his lifetime served more to confuse than clarify, and perhaps were uttered with the intention to deflect unwelcome critical attention. These include Shostakovich’s description of the first movement as a toyshop, and also as a picture of a childhood with unclouded skies. To my mind, there is more of the enfant terrible than the innocent child in the music, all the more so when one realizes how much reference there is to the early works which were the object of official disapproval. It is enough to think of the inventive use of percussion throughout the work, which was already a feature of “The Nose” and the repressed Fourth Symphony, both written while Shostakovich was in his twenties.

Another statement by the composer advanced the idea of the symphony as a passage through life from birth to death. Here one is left perplexed by the significance of the momentously tragic second movement – unless one were to indulge in fashionable “political” explanations which might put forward a picture of the dark years of Stalinism, to be followed by the respite of the “thaw” years in the Scherzo. But such simplistic views deprive the music of its inner truths and are as untenable as the contemporary Soviet interpretations of the Symphony as a memorial to the victims of War.

One thing is certain. However profound and impenetrable its enigmas, the Fifteenth Symphony has a lasting and universal significance purely on the grounds of musical merit.