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Composed: 1971

Length: 44 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, vibraphone, whip, wood block, xylophone), celesta, and strings

First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: March 17, 1988, Kurt Sanderling conducting

Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, like his Fifteenth String Quartet, was his last, and both works seem to illuminate the composer’s state of mind in his last years. The word “seem” is appropriate since, of all composers in the 20th century, of none is it truer to say that the more we know the less we know. We have learned much about Shostakovich since his death in 1975, from reminiscences of friends, from letters and documents, from his now discredited autobiography Testimony, and from our deeper knowledge of life in the Soviet Union. The one thing that comes through clearly is that for any artist under Stalin’s regime the most prized skill was that of dissembling. For Shostakovich, who was inordinately shy and who hated appearing in public, it became second nature to keep his thoughts to himself, to play his cards with the utmost circumspection, to lie when necessary, and to choose his friends with care. A composer in such circumstances has the blessing of his own music, which can express exactly what he wants it to express without his having to explain its meaning to anyone. Who can say what his music is about? How can we know that the hints and explanations the composer did give are the truth? Like Beethoven, Shostakovich had such supreme command of his craft that he could string his audience along, letting them believe one message and then (perhaps) delivering a different one. Or perhaps the same one?

After Stalin’s death in 1953 the pressure was relaxed, it’s true, but old habits were deeply ingrained. Shostakovich remained as enigmatic as ever. When he seems playful, is he in fact mocking himself or us? When he seems downcast, is it for real? Behind that timorous exterior and those thick glasses was a musical brain of astonishing craft – and craftiness. Allusiveness permeates his later works, which often refer to coded symbols (like the DSCH theme in the Tenth Symphony), to earlier works, and to the works of others. The Fifteenth Symphony is so full of such references that commentators have proposed every kind of interpretation. Some say he was depressed by ill-health and contemplating death; some say he was recovering and looking for a brighter future; some see the Symphony as a summing-up of his life’s work, sampling styles and themes that had a private meaning for him. The listener may – indeed must – make up his own mind, since Shostakovich, an intensely private man, left few clues. At rehearsals before the first performance in 1972 he muttered about a carefree childhood, and the storms and stresses of adult life. He also likened the playful tone of the first movement to a toyshop, with its mechanical dolls.

But why, then, the quotation from the William Tell overture? Because, surely, his music is so stamped with that ti-ti-tum rhythm that sooner or later the collision of Rossini’s music and his own was bound to happen. Why the quotation from Die Walküre? This is easier to answer: The Todesverkündigung (the annunciation of death, heard on trombones and tuba at the start of the fourth movement) is the most ominous musical gesture ever imagined; it can mean nothing other than foreboding and dread. Why the teasing memory of the first three notes of Tristan und Isolde leading not to unfettered passion but to a sweet little playful tune? As for the closing pages, where an unearthly clicking is heard from the percussion section, this is surely not a memory of childish things but (as Kurt Sanderling, who knew Shostakovich well, insisted) the grim sound of drip-feeds and hospital machinery as the patient loses consciousness.

There are allusions to popular subversive songs and echoes of earlier symphonies. Shostakovich sometimes steps close to a twelve-note series. In the last movement a broad passacaglia on a repeated bass, one of his favorite forms, generates a tense climax. Occasional isolated chords on woodwinds or brass can induce alarm. All in all, it is impossible to see the Fifteenth as anything but a pessimistic work, like the last String Quartet and the late Viola Sonata. It may survey the whole of life, or at least the whole of his life, with music ranging from manic and clownish to dark and subdued, but the Adagio music fills much more of the Symphony’s space than the Allegretto music, just as we are left with the overwhelming impression that, for Shostakovich, the darkness always supersedes the light.

- Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.