Symphony No. 14 (Shostakovich)

Last updated

The Symphony No. 14 in G minor, Op. 135, by Dmitri Shostakovich was completed in the spring of 1969, and was premiered later that year. It is a work for soprano, bass and a small string orchestra with percussion, consisting of eleven linked settings of poems by four authors. Most of the poems deal with the theme of death, particularly that of unjust or early death. They were set in Russian, although two other versions of the work exist with the texts all back-translated from Russian either into their original languages or into German. The symphony is dedicated to Benjamin Britten (who gave the UK premiere the following year at Aldeburgh).



Besides the soloists, the symphony is scored for a chamber orchestra consisting only of strings and percussion. The strings consist of ten violins, four violas, three cellos, and two double basses, and the percussion section (three players) includes wood block, castanets, whip, soprano, alto and tenor tom-toms, xylophone, tubular bells, vibraphone, and celesta. The percussion section does not include common instruments such as timpani, bass drum, cymbals, or triangle.


The work has eleven linked movements, each a setting of a poem, with a total duration of around 50 minutes:

Much of the setting is in a quasi-parlando style. Shost14m1fig6.png
Much of the setting is in a quasi-parlando style.
  1. Adagio. "De profundis" (Federico García Lorca)
  2. Allegretto. "Malagueña" (Federico García Lorca)
  3. Allegro molto. "Loreley" (Guillaume Apollinaire)
  4. Adagio. "Le Suicidé" (Guillaume Apollinaire)
  5. Allegretto. "Les Attentives I" (On watch) (Guillaume Apollinaire)
  6. Adagio. "Les Attentives II" (Madam, look!) (Guillaume Apollinaire)
  7. Adagio. "À la Santé" (Guillaume Apollinaire)
  8. Allegro. "Réponse des Cosaques Zaporogues au Sultan de Constantinople" (Guillaume Apollinaire)
  9. Andante. "O, Del'vig, Del'vig!" (Wilhelm Küchelbecker)
  10. Largo. "Der Tod des Dichters" (Rainer Maria Rilke)
  11. Moderato. "Schlußstück" (Rainer Maria Rilke)
The opening bars of the symphony, played by the first violins. Shost14m1b1to3.png
The opening bars of the symphony, played by the first violins.

The first movement begins with the violins playing a theme reminiscent of the Dies irae, which plays a prominent role in the history of Russian music. Fragments of the theme are developed in various sections throughout the symphony; it recurs in its entirety in the climactic penultimate movement.

The work shows Shostakovich's willingness to adopt new techniques. All but two of the movements include themes using tone rows, which he uses to convey a sense of the abstract. [1] He also makes dramatic use of tone clusters, such as the fortissimo chord illustrating the lily growing from the suicide's mouth in the fourth movement.



The Fourteenth Symphony was a creative response to Modest Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death , which Shostakovich had orchestrated in 1962. [2] Like Mussorgsky, Shostakovich brings back the subject of death in various images and situations. The Mussorgsky cycle contains only four songs — too few to do justice to Mussorgsky's concept, Shostakovich felt. He proceeded to expand it by selecting 11 poems by Federico García Lorca, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilhelm Küchelbecker and Rainer Maria Rilke. [3]

Shostakovich attached great importance to this work, commenting in a letter to Glikman: "Everything that I have written until now over these long years has been a preparation for this work." [4] He added that he intended the symphony to prove a counterweight to the positive presentation of death in music:

"In part, I am trying to polemicise with the great classics who touched upon the theme of death in their work.... Remember the death of Boris Godunov. When ... he dies, then a kind of brightening sets in. Remember Verdi's Otello . When the whole tragedy ends, and Desdemona and Otello die, we also experience a beautiful tranquility. Remember Aida . When the tragic demise of the hero and heroine occurs, it is softened with radiant music." [5]

In Mussorgsky's song cycle Shostakovich found a model that spoke out against death; in his symphony, he attempted to expand this protest still further. [3] The composer wrote in his preface to the score:

I want listeners to reflect upon my new symphony ... to realise that they must lead pure and fruitful lives for the glory of their Motherland, their people and the most progressive ideas motivating our socialist society. That is what I was thinking about as I wrote my new work. I want my listeners, as they leave the hall after hearing my symphony, to think that life is truly beautiful. [6]

While Shostakovich's intent may have been to emphasise that life is truly beautiful, he did so by starkly underlining the opposite — that the end of life is ugly and irredeemably negative. [7] Toward this end, Shostakovich's music is sober in nature, and the composer was soon to extend these ideas in his last four string quartets as musical reflections on the themes of suffering and death. [8] As in his orchestration of Songs, his orchestration of the symphony is spare but extremely imaginative. His writing for the voice is in small intervals, with much tonal repetition and attention paid to natural declamation. This practice is taken directly from Mussorgsky. [9]


The work received its official premiere in Leningrad on 29 September 1969 by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Rudolf Barshai. Four singers were involved in the first presentations of the work: the sopranos Galina Vishnevskaya and Margarita Miroshnikova, and the basses Mark Reshetin ru and Yevgeny Vladimirov. An initial performance, preceding the official Moscow and Leningrad premieres, was given by Miroshnikova and Vladimirov, but sources differ as to the vocalists in the official premieres. The official premiere recording on Melodiya was with Miroshnikova and Vladimirov. [10]

The pre-premiere performance was notable for the commotion caused in the audience by Pavel Apostolov, one of the composer's most vicious critics, who suffered a heart attack or stroke. He did not die during the concert, as is often claimed (Shostakovich himself thought this to be the case), but a month or so afterwards.[ citation needed ]

The UK premiere was held at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1970 and was conducted by the dedicatee, Benjamin Britten.


The composer himself was initially unsure what to call the work, eventually designating it a symphony rather than a song cycle to emphasise the unity of the work musically and philosophically: most of the poems deal with the subject of mortality (he rejected the title oratorio because the work lacks a chorus; it is not a choral symphony for the same reason).

Not all the movements are linked; there are a few breaks between movements that effectively divide the work into a "conventional" four-movement structure.

Many at the time (including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Lev Lebedinsky) criticised the work as too pessimistic. Wilson argues that on the contrary "through careful ordering of the texts [he] conveys a specific message of protest at the arbitrary power exercised by dictators in sending the innocent to their deaths" (p. 411).

Shostakovich reportedly answered his critics in Testimony :

[My critics] read this idea in the Fourteenth Symphony: "death is all-powerful." They wanted the finale to be comforting, to say that death is only the beginning. But it's not a beginning, it's the real end, there will be nothing afterwards, nothing. I feel you must look truth right in the eyes ... To deny death and its power is useless. Deny it or not, you'll die anyway ... It's stupid to protest against death as such, but you can and must protest against violent death. It's bad when people die before their time from disease or poverty, but it's worse when a man is killed by another man. [11]

The absence from the symphony of redemption or transcendence drew protests not only in the Soviet Union but also in the West, where the work was considered both obsessive and limited spiritually. Shostakovich was determined to avoid false consolation. This intent was a prime stimulus in writing the work. Some have found that the work's embracing of human mortality has been expressed with tremendous clarity. [12] Others have found the work bleakly pessimistic and, especially in its opening De Profundis, virtually nihilistic. Regardless of opinion, the Fourteenth in performance is agreed to be a profound and powerful experience. [13]


  1. Huth, Andrew, Notes to performance at the Barbican Arts Centre 13 April 2006, p. vi.
  2. Morten, 117
  3. 1 2 Maes, 370.
  4. Quoted in Wilson, Shostakovich, 412.
  5. Quoted in Fay, Mussorgsky and Shostakovich, 22o.
  6. Quoted in Fanning, 5.
  7. Fanning, 3.
  8. Maes, 370-1.
  9. Maes, 369-370.
  10. Barshai in Wilson p. 417 states that Vishnevskaya and Reshetin gave the premiere in each city, while the MCA edition of the score attributes the Leningrad premiere to Vishnevskaya and Reshetin.
  11. Volkov, Testimony, 139-9.
  12. Fanning, 4.
  13. Morten, 117.

Related Research Articles

Dmitri Shostakovich Soviet composer and pianist (1906–1975)

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was a Soviet-era Russian composer and pianist. He is regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century and one of its most popular composers.

Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110, was written in three days.

Symphony No. 7 (Shostakovich) 1941 symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60, nicknamed the Leningrad, was begun in Leningrad, completed in the city of Samara in December 1941, and premiered in that city on March 5, 1942. At first dedicated to Lenin, it was eventually submitted in honor of the besieged city of Leningrad, where it was first played under dire circumstances on August 9, 1942, nearly a year into the siege by German and Finnish forces. The performance was broadcast by loudspeaker throughout the city and to the German forces in a show of resilience and defiance. The Leningrad soon became popular in both the Soviet Union and the West as a symbol of resistance to fascism and totalitarianism, thanks in part to the composer's microfilming of the score in Samara and its clandestine delivery, via Tehran and Cairo, to New York, where Arturo Toscanini led a broadcast performance and Time magazine placed Shostakovich on its cover. That popularity faded somewhat after 1945, but the work is still regarded as a major musical testament to the 27 million Soviet people who lost their lives in World War II, and it is often played at Leningrad Cemetery, where half a million victims of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad are buried.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 2 in B major, Op. 14, subtitled To October, for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. It was first performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and the Academy Capella Choir under Nikolai Malko, on 5 November 1927. After the premiere, Shostakovich made some revisions to the score, and this final version was first played in Moscow later in 1927 under the baton of Konstantin Saradzhev. It was also the first time any version of the work had been played in Moscow.

Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43, between September 1935 and May 1936, after abandoning some preliminary sketch material. In January 1936, halfway through this period, Pravda—under direct orders from Joseph Stalin—published an editorial "Muddle Instead of Music" that denounced the composer and targeted his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Despite this attack and the political climate of the time, Shostakovich completed the symphony and planned its premiere for December 1936 in Leningrad. After rehearsals began, the orchestra's management cancelled the performance, offering a statement that Shostakovich had withdrawn the work. He may have agreed to withdraw it to relieve orchestra officials of responsibility. The symphony was premiered on 30 December 1961 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra led by Kirill Kondrashin.

The Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54 by Dmitri Shostakovich was written in 1939, and first performed in Leningrad on 21 November 1939 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky.

The Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65, by Dmitri Shostakovich was written in the summer of 1943, and first performed on November 4 of that year by the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky, to whom the work is dedicated. It was named the 'Stalingrad Symphony' by the USSR.

The Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, by Dmitri Shostakovich was written in 1957 and premiered by the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Natan Rakhlin on 30 October 1957. The subtitle of the symphony refers to the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905, which the symphony depicts. The first performance given outside the Soviet Union took place in London's Royal Festival Hall on 22 January 1958 when Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The United States premiere was performed by Leopold Stokowski conducting the Houston Symphony on 7 April 1958. The symphony was conceived as a popular piece and proved an instant success in Russia, his greatest one since the Leningrad Symphony fifteen years earlier. The work's popular success, as well as its earning him a Lenin Prize in April 1958, marked the composer's formal rehabilitation from the Zhdanov Doctrine of 1948.

Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Op. 112, subtitled The Year of 1917, in 1961, dedicating it to the memory of Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, as he did his Symphony No. 2. The symphony was premiered on October 1, 1961, by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky.

Symphony No. 13 (Shostakovich) 1962 solo vocal and choral symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor, Op. 113 is an hour-long work for bass soloist, men's chorus, and large orchestra that is laid out in five movements, each a setting of a Yevgeny Yevtushenko poem. This unusual form gives rise to various descriptions: choral symphony, song cycle, giant cantata. The five earthily vernacular poems denounce Soviet life one aspect at a time: brutality, cynicism, deprivation, anxiety, corruption.

Symphony No. 15 (Shostakovich) 1971 symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich

The Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141, composed between late 1970 and July 29, 1971, is the final symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. It was his first purely instrumental and non-programmatic symphony since the Tenth from 1953. Shostakovich began to plan and sketch the Fifteenth in late 1970, with the intention of composing for himself a cheerful work to mark his 65th birthday the next year. After completing the sketch score in April 1971, he wrote the orchestral score in June while receiving medical treatment in the town of Kurgan. The symphony was completed the following month at his summer dacha in Repino. This was followed by a prolonged period of creative inactivity which did not end until the composition of the Fourteenth Quartet in 1973.

The Song of the Forests, Op. 81, is an oratorio by Dmitri Shostakovich composed in the summer of 1949. It was written to celebrate the forestation of the Russian steppes following the end of World War II. The composition was essentially made to please Joseph Stalin and the oratorio is notorious for lines praising as the "great gardener", although performances after Stalin's death have normally omitted them. Premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky on 15 November 1949, the work was well received by the government, earning the composer a Stalin Prize the following year.

The String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor, Op. 144 by Dmitri Shostakovich is the composer's last. It was his first quartet since the Sixth which did not bear a dedication.

Galina Vishnevskaya Russian soprano

Galina Pavlovna Vishnevskaya was a Russian soprano opera singer and recitalist who was named a People's Artist of the USSR in 1966. She was the wife of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and mother to their two daughters, Olga and Elena Rostropovich.

Boris Alexandrovich Tchaikovsky, PAU, was a Soviet and Russian composer, born in Moscow, whose oeuvre includes orchestral works, chamber music and film music. He is considered as part of the second generation of Russian composers, following in the steps of Pyotr Tchaikovsky and especially Mussorgsky.

String Quartet No. 10 (Shostakovich)

Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 10 in A-flat major, Op. 118, was composed from 9 to 20 July 1964. It was premiered by the Beethoven Quartet in Moscow and is dedicated to composer Mieczysław (Moisei) Weinberg, a close friend of Shostakovich. It has been described as cultivating the uncertain mood of his earlier Stalin-era quartets, as well as foreshadowing the austerity and emotional distance of his later works. The quartet typified the preference for chamber music over large scale works, such as symphonies, that characterised his late period. According to the American musicologist Richard Taruskin, this made him the first Russian composer to devote so much time to the string quartet medium.

<i>Songs and Dances of Death</i> Song cycle by Modest Mussorgsky

Songs and Dances of Death is a song cycle for voice and piano by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, written in the mid-1870s, to poems by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, a relative of the composer.

Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok is a vocal-instrumental suite by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. It was inspired by verses of poet Alexander Blok (1880–1921).

Rudolf Barshai

Rudolf Borisovich Barshai was a Soviet and Russian conductor and violist. The Rudolf Barshai International Strings Competition was established in 2020.