Boris Tishchenko, Symphony No. 5, Op. 67

By Laurel E. Fay

Written for the concert After the Thaw, performed on Feb 24, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The death of Dmitri Shostakovich in 1975 left no Soviet composer unaffected. Many of them—representing all generations and stylistic inclinations—wrote pieces to pay homage to his legacy, artistic and moral, to vent their feelings of bereavement, or even to quell the sense of panic in contemplation of the “post-Shostakovich” era. To Boris Tishchenko (b. 1939), the loss was deeply personal. It was the loss of a teacher, mentor, colleague and friend.

Like Shostakovich, Tishchenko is a native of St. Petersburg with an inborn connection to its historical and cultural traditions. As a teenager, he studied composition with one of Shostakovich’s most prized students, Galina Ustvolskaya, before attending the Leningrad Conservatory. When Shostakovich agreed to resume teaching there in 1962, Tishchenko seized the opportunity to become one of his graduate students. Upon completion of his studies, he joined the faculty where he remains a professor of composition to the present day. One of the leading representatives of the “Petersburg school,” Tishchenko is a productive composer of symphonies and instrumental concerti, piano sonatas and string quartets, vocal music and music for the theater. Historical themes are prevalent in his work; his ballet Yaroslavna (1974), for example, is based on the Slavic epic poem “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” Literature has provided the stimulus for many of his works. Tishchenko has set the poetry of Josef Brodsky (with whom he was a friend), Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova. His Requiem (1966), set to texts from Akhmatova’s narrative poem (then unpublished in the USSR), had to wait twenty years for its first performance. Among his recent works are five “Dante” symphonies (1998-2005, collectively designated as Beatrice, a “choreo-symphonic” cycle) inspired by themes from “The Divine Comedy.”

The relationship between Tishchenko and Shostakovich was not one-sided; it was one of mutual respect. They corresponded, debated, and shared their music and impressions. In a rare gesture of esteem, Shostakovich re-orchestrated one of Tishchenko’s works and presented it to him as a gift. In 1966, Tishchenko dedicated his Third Symphony to Shostakovich. Tishchenko’s Fifth Symphony, completed in 1976, was his musical reaction to the older composer’s death. It, too, is dedicated to Shostakovich.

Tishchenko’s Fifth Symphony is in five movements, played without pause. In scale, in the dramatic contrast of movements, in rhetoric, in raw emotive force, it inhabits the familiar sound world of a Shostakovich symphony. There are a number of quotations from and allusions to Shostakovich’s music, most notably his musical monogram “DSCH” (D—Eb—C—B). But these are balanced by references to Tishchenko’s own works, including his Third Symphony, Concerto for Flute, Piano and Strings (1972) and Fifth Piano Sonata (1973). From this perspective, the symphony can be regarded as an imagined musical dialogue between two composers in close creative rapport.

Plaintive solos for woodwind instruments in the opening movement are offset by stentorian orchestral chords, eventually disintegrating into chaos. In the second, “Dedication,” grief expends itself in chromatic dissonance. The nervous, mechanical propulsion of the third movement builds to a terrifying climax; references to passages in Shostakovich’s Eighth and Tenth symphonies can be heard. The roiling trills and glissandi of the fourth movement contain hints of a passacaglia. The theme of the rondo finale has the quality of a stylized dance; in the penultimate episode reminders of earlier movements, including the pensive monologues and intertwined quotations, reappear.