Skip to page content

Composed: 1962

Length: 60 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat, 3rd = bass), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, chimes, cymbals, slapstick, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, wood block, xylophone), 2 harps, piano (= celesta), strings, solo bass, and men's chorus

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 7, 1996, Eri Klas conducting, with bass Mikhail Kit and the Estonian National Men's Choir

It was usually words, rather than music, that would cause Shostakovich to be banished to the Soviet doghouse by the officially appointed tastemakers (i.e., censors): the words of Alexander Preis (librettist of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk); the symbolist poets Alexander Blok and Anna Akhmatova, honored in song by the composer; and the populist-showman of the post-Stalin era, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose poetry is the raison d'être of the Thirteenth Symphony.

The composer had enjoyed a reprise from governmental interference with his two previous symphonies, No. 11, "The Year 1905" and No. 12, "The Year 1917," both on Russian revolutionary themes - and wordless. No. 13, however, was greeted with dismay once its literary themes had become common knowledge. No one in Russia who could read didn't know about the gadfly Yevtushenko and his poem Babi Yar, verses which ignited a creative fire in Shostakovich the moment he saw them in a literary periodical in 1961.

Both poet and composer would be officially excoriated for the sentiments expressed in the poem, from which the Symphony takes its commonly-used name but which is in fact only one (the longest) of five by Yevtushenko set in this Symphony. The theme of Babi Yar, the poem - and by extension the Symphony - is anti-Semitism.

The period under discussion is that of the nominal post-Stalinist (Stalin died in 1953) "thaw" in East-West relations presided over by Nikita Khrushchev. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? The bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising? The expression "We will bury you!" (aimed at the West)? All took place on Khrushchev's watch.

The historical background …

In September of 1941, having killed countless Russian troops and civilians on its eastward push, the Wehrmacht reached the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Within days of their arrival, violent protests, marked by bombings in which German officers were killed, broke out. As a consequence, on September 29, 1941, the commandant of the occupying forces issued a decree ordering over 33,000 men, women, and children for no explicit reason to gather up their portable belongings, including money and jewels, to meet in a designated area. The rumor was circulated that they were being "resettled." All 33,000 were Jews.

After assembling, they were taken by truck convoy to Babi Yar (Grandmother's Ravine), told to strip, and then were systematically killed by machine gun fire, falling or being pushed into the ravine.

Yevtushenko's poem draws parallels between the German atrocities and the officially sanctioned, but unadmitted, anti-Semitism of the Soviet regime, whether headed by Stalin or Khrushchev. The poet was taken to task, as was the composer, by Khrushchev for not mentioning the thousands of other bodies - including those of many non-Jewish Ukrainians - that would continue to fill Babi Yar during the days following the initial massacre.

The first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony was to have been given by the Leningrad Philharmonic under the composer's frequent collaborator, Yevgeny Mravinsky. But Mravinsky found the subject too hot to handle and backed out. Kiril Kondrashin, a fearless champion of the composer - and of the causes of many aggrieved Soviet artists - jumped at the chance to take Mravinsky's place, and it was he who led the premiere, in Moscow, on December 18, 1962. The official Communist Party box was empty. The work was a huge success with its audience, but only one additional Moscow performance was given, a handful elsewhere in the Soviet Union, and for the next 20-plus years, silence. It might be noted that the authorities had considered canceling the premiere at the eleventh hour but decided against it, fearing the creation of even more publicity for the miscreants. There were no press reviews.

Yevtushenko of course shared in the acclaim not only for the "bold statement" of the poem, "Babi Yar," and almost as an afterthought, for the four additional poems set by Shostakovich. Subsequently, however, Yevtushenko, as reported by Kondrashin, "as keen on publicity as ever, published a second version of 'Babi Yar', greatly expanded to include lines about the non-Jews who died at Babi Yar and the role of the Party [in Russia's fight against tyranny in all its guises]. He made sure that it was seen that he had taken the authorities' criticism to heart." Earlier, Yevtushenko had already made a short addition along the same lines to his original text, but Shostakovich angrily refused to re-compose the movement.

The Symphony is scored for a huge orchestra, an all-male chorus (always singing in unison), and bass soloist. The five Yevtushenko poems employed are in fact related to each other only as a result of their appearance in the Shostakovich Symphony.

The relatively brief, pungent second movement, in effect the scherzo, is bitterly humorous, the message of the poem being decidedly "Shostakovichian," if you will: the notion of Humor as a personage, breaking into a dashing dance and laughing at attempts to silence his voice, to "execute" him - impossible even for czars, kings, and emperors.

The slow third movement, "In the Store," is a tribute to the women of the Soviet Union, or to women anywhere for whom the simple act of shopping is an act cloaked in significance, the women being "our honor and our conscience," enduring all, in the face of indescribable privations.

Movement No. 4, "Fears," another slow movement (the last three movements are joined, without breaks) could be taken as a words-and-music portrait of the KGB and its silent ancestors throughout history. The tuba solo at the start chillingly sets the stage for the pervasive feeling of the quiet menace of secrecy.

The finale, "Career," is filled with hope, in words and music, and a relatively gentle humor. The beginning is playful, then the irony returns - applied with a delicate touch, as the bass soloist and the chorus (with flutes and bassoons active in the background) consider history's mocking of those who expressed profound truths, such as Galileo being mocked by the clergy for proclaiming that the earth revolved around the sun, and other "originals" mocked for telling the truth, Shakespeare, Newton, Tolstoy. But, as the poet informs, it is the mockers who are forgotten. Simplistic, perhaps, but conveying a powerful message when set to music.

The Symphony's final measures are dominated by the dreamlike, ghostly tinkling of the celesta… Perhaps a reference to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (which the composer admired greatly) and its final message that life transcends death, hope trumps despair.

- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.