Dmitry Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony is, like many of his other symphonies, deeply autobiographical. “I want to write an engaging symphony,” Shostakovich admitted to his pupil and colleague Boris Tishchenko in early 1971. Prior to its being performed for the Union of Composers, Shostakovich called the first Allegretto a “toy shop”. Apropos, this “playfulness” is akin to puppetry, the evil, seamy side of circus life, held above human warmth and cordiality.
In the Allegretto we can hear echoes from early works by Shostakovich, and among his own themes the composer cites a motif from the Guillaume Tell overture. However, if with Rossini it is a lively, fervent, full-sounding march of the strings, then with Shostakovich it mechanically resembles one of his brass parody variations (as if from a piece played by a park band). It is not the most evil scherzo, yet neither is it an entirely happy childhood memory.
The second movement, the Adagio, is an epitaph for himself, something frequently met with in Shostakovich’s late works, but this is the most grandiose. In the huge culmination – a blinding tutti in major key – the composer combines his heartache, his “self-mourning”, with national grief. There is a majestic requiem, like a monographic memorial monument on a square.
The silence of the final bars of the Adagio is broken by the droning basses of the Scherzo. But its dance-like nature is deceitful – it is a grotesque, purely evil and foretelling finale. The beat of the percussion – the skeletons dance – is a reference to the coda in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony. This forms an “arch” from the early seventies back to 1936, the most fateful year in Shostakovich’s life.
This image subsequently appears in the finale. In the final movement, which opens with the motif of Fate from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, there are many other curious melodic allusions – to themes from romances by Glinka, Beethoven’s Sonata or the famous motif of languor from Tristan... Alongside the BACH and DSCH monogram themes, together with the brief passacaglia that conjures up similar pages from the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and Lady Macbeth, they almost pick out the “life of a hero” and his spiritual space. One surprising discovery is the little bell and celesta that bring us back to the beginning of the symphony and the “toy shop”. And at the same time to the ostinato rhythm of the passacaglia (pizzicato for strings), the percussion taps out and calls forth the “dance of death”, now sounding clear and conciliatory. The final bell is the same as the first – the circle has been drawn closed!
After the immense score of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – “an opera that makes an era” (the words of Samuil Samosud, who conducted the MALEGOT premiere) – Shostakovich “recalled” that he was a pianist who almost made a successful performing career. Two weeks after completing the opera he conceived – one after the other – two adjacent works: Twenty-Four Preludes, Op. 34, and the Piano Concerto, Op. 35. Along with the quickly-written Cello Sonata, Op. 40, they were the favourite pieces in Shostakovich’s piano repertoire in the mid-30s, and he performed them in towns and cities throughout the USSR. The “line of humanised music” that drew the attention of Boris Asafiev in Shostakovich’s opera found its continuation in the Concerto. It turned out that the composer’s lyricism was wrongfully rejected (as was the case with the young Sergei Prokofiev in his time). In the slow elegy Shostakovich (following in Tchaikovsky’s footsteps) introduces a waltz, or rather the Boston Waltz, its contemporary incarnation, into the “pearl of creation”. But, as if ashamed of openly expressing his emotions – a feature typical of bashful youth – the composer “hides” the lyricism in the folds of anti-romantic clothing. In the first movement the Beethoven-like, stern main subject is set off by a “light genre”, and in the finale the sparkling humour of quotations from Haydn’s piano sonata and Beethoven’s rondo “Rage over a lost penny” is combined with songs from Odessa and cabaret motifs.