The Tenth Symphony marked a big return for Dmitri Shostakovich, who had been suffering from a denunciation by the Soviet government, whose officials were against all music, art, and literature that they considered too abstract, formal, and serious. Along with Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, and other artists, Shostakovich was denounced in 1948 for writing “non-Russian” music. He had already been denounced once before in 1936 from which he recovered by composing his Fifth Symphony. This second denunciation affected Shostakovich for much longer than the first. He was banished from his professorship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, his main source of income. During this time, he composed two kinds of music during this time: works for the public to make ends meet and works for himself. Those works he intended to make public were aligned with the wishes of the Soviet government, such as practical film scores, “music for the people,” and music which he thought would secure the lift of the denunciation. Meanwhile, he kept composing for himself which he did not share with anyone in fear of making his situation even worse, intending on getting them published and performed in the future when they would be appreciated. Only the music he wrote for himself remains regularly performed today, such as his First Violin Concerto, a song-cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, and Fourth String Quartet.
It was only after Stalin’s death five years later in March of 1953 that Shostakovich’s life become less oppressed. Since the second denunciation, Shostakovich was forced to write many works praising Stalin and Russia. He was used as a puppet on the international stage by the Soviet government, and this public humiliation reduced him to tears in both private and public. The Tenth symphony is a celebration of the release from this situation.
A controversial—and sometimes untrustworthy—book about Shostakovich titled Testimony includes a purported interview in which Shostakovich is supposed to have said that the Tenth Symphony is “about Stalin and the Stalin years.” If this is indeed the truth (which some scholars reject), the first movement reflects the heavy oppression Shostakovich experienced under Stalin. It quotes the second movement titled “What Does My Name Mean To You?” from an earlier work, Four Monologues on Verses by Pushkin. In that poem, Pushkin writes a love-poem exploring how fragile our identity is to those who love us. It is an existential meditation on the ephemeral nature of memory and human life.
Indeed, Shostakovich saw himself through this existential lens and embedded himself throughout the symphony (as he did in many of his other works) by using the following four notes serving as his musical initials: D, S, C, H. (In the German system of spelling musical notes, S means an E-flat and H means a B-natural.) If you happen to notice a series of four notes that repeats itself often, you’re most likely hearing this DSCH motif.
The brutality and aggressiveness of the second movement suggests an impression of Stalin himself. This fast movement is not only oppressive but relentless. There is no escape, and no room to breathe. In the third movement, Shostakovich resumes the use of the DSCH motif and also inserts another motif representing Elmira Nazirova, a student for whom Shostakovich developed unrequited romantic feelings. The final movement perhaps best represents Shostakovich’s diverse and even confused innermost thoughts and feelings of oppression, love, and now resemblance of independence. Near the end of the piece, DSCH motif is heard repeatedly into a triumphant, frenzied, but glorious finish.