Symphony No. 15 (Shostakovich)
The Symphony No. 15 in A major (Opus 141), Dmitri Shostakovich's last, was written in a little over a month during the summer of 1971 in Repino. It was first performed in Moscow on 8 January 1972 by the All-Union Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra under Maxim Shostakovich.
The work has four movements (the middle two being played without interruption):
- Adagio - Largo - Adagio - Allegretto
- Adagio - Allegretto - Adagio - Allegretto
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Deceptively, the composer likened the first movement to 'a toyshop', referring to a superficial sense of childlike innocence and naiveté which is soon corrupted. The movement opens with two chimes on the glockenspiel, and a lengthy passage for the solo flute, growing out of a quirky five-note motif which flits between A♭ major and A minor (connected by a C♮), accompanied by slow-changing but lively chords for pizzicato strings. A♭ being As in German notation, these five notes, E♭-A♭-C-B-A, spell out the name "SASCHA", the name of his grandson who was nine years old at the time (compare this to the "Elmira" theme in Symphony No. 10). Whooping off-beat horn chords, use of the clarinet's altissimo register, regular glockenspiel interjections, lusty trumpet fanfares, drum rolls, and solo passages for bassoon and xylophone make up the brightly coloured, infantile sound world of this movement; yet the bizarre harmonic ambiguity and unpredictable employment of variable tempi shatter any sense of real innocence. Though Shostakovich often quotes rhythms from Gioachino Rossini's William Tell Overture, in this movement he quotes the tune as well (see the Quotations section below). Two particularly striking passages make use of the device of prolation canon, first in the strings (Fig. 27) and later in the woodwind (Fig. 47). Both these passages create complex textures: at rehearsal figure 29, he makes use of an 8:6:5 polyrhythm. All these features contribute powerfully to the strange and enigmatic atmosphere of the movement.
The second movement (opening in the far-removed key of F minor) opens with an eerie chorale for the brass alone. Chromatic thirds move simultaneously in three octaves in the trumpets, tenor trombones and bass trombone and tuba, against a pedal C in the horns. A sense of pathos is achieved by the despairing rises and falls in the dynamics, and the solo 'cello plays a languorous and meandering lament, exploiting an enormous tessitura from the lowest open string to the thirteenth position. Low register flutes play a simple motif (in sixths, accompanied by 'cello trills) which is eventually taken over and expanded upon by the solo trombone. A side-drum roll brings the entire brass section to a fortissimo statement of the initial flute theme, and a crashing chorale for brass (without trumpets), timpani, bassoons and double basses sounds against an impassioned chromatic melody for strings and high woodwind, derived from material used in the first movement, to created a colossal, distorted, organ-like effect. After a selection of quieter instrumental groupings and a recapitulation of the trombone melody (this time accompanied by pulsating timpani semiquavers), an adagio celesta solo is ingeniously imitated by the combination of 'cello string harmonics and vibraphone, eventually used to accompany a solo double bass, before a final reference to the opening brass chorale.
Parallel fifths in the bassoons eventually settle on a G and D double pedal, against which the woodwind section is showcased through an agitated clarinet melody built on the diminished chord, chromatic flourishes for flutes and piccolo, low clarinet murmurings, and two oboes in canon in sevenths. This is imitated by the string section (up-bows are specified for the solo violin to re-create the sound of the staccato clarinet tonguing). A trombone glissando across a minor third and a clattering interjection from the timpani contribute to the humorous character (although the movement is not termed a scherzo by the composer), and the movement ends with a cold percussive ticking that foreshadows the close of the finale, as well as a rising fourth in the piccolo, xylophone and pizzicato second violins that ends the movement firmly in G minor.
The symphony is notable for many things, among them its eerie coda on a sustained pedal point in the strings supporting an astonishing percussion toccata featuring castanets, snare drum, wood block, xylophone, and triangle. This recalls the final moments of the scherzo from the Fourth Symphony, as well as those of a much more recent and similarly morbid work, the Second Cello Concerto. The long-held note is similar to the ending of the Fourth, which ends on a long (app. 2 minutes) C minor chord. Through this fascinating melee the timpani plays the movement's main passacaglia idea, which may stem from the "invasion" theme from the Seventh Symphony. Finally the glockenspiel and celesta strike a single, sustained, C♯ to close on an A major chord, thus ending the symphony.
It is worth noting that Shostakovich, as he often does in his late scores, includes certain aspects of twelve-tone writing in the music. He is not interested in the structural implications of the technique, he just constructs some melodies in this style.
Use of quotations 
Ever the humourist, Shostakovich delighted in placing allusions to the works of himself and other composers in his work, and his Fifteenth symphony is particularly rich in quotations. In addition to the cryptic references to his own music, it includes an outburst of Rossini's William Tell Overture in the first movement (rehearsal figure 12); allusions to Mikhail Glinka and Gustav Mahler; and the use of Richard Wagner's Fate leitmotif from the Ring Cycle.
Most skillful is his manipulation of the famous grief leitmotif from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the end of the fourth movement. Beginning at rehearsal figure 113 in the first violin part, Wagner's famous motif of a rising minor sixth followed by a two note chromatic descent grows organically out of Shostakovich's own theme: a quirky and grotesque reference to the composer's own sense of suffering at his late stage of life, stated towards the close of this semi-autobiographical work.
The composer said in conversation with his friend, Isaak Glikman: "I don't myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them". (Glikman p. 315).
The symphony is scored for the following instrumentation.
Percussion aside, the score is remarkably restrained in its use of instrumental forces. Shostakovich's Fourth symphony requires six flutes, six clarinets, eight horns, two tubas, six timpani and as many as fourteen double basses as part of its orchestra; his Seventh six trumpets and six trombones. Yet here, the composer is content with far more economical means: his woodwind and brass sections are of early Romantic proportions (and indeed very similar to the orchestra for his Ninth Symphony), and he does not call for the E-flat clarinet, the Bass Clarinet, the contrabassoon, the harp or the piano, which so many of his large-scale works use.
Though written for a large orchestra, the symphony is sparingly scored, making use of various chamber music groupings, both typical (such as the use of the brass, woodwind or string sections as units) and atypical (such as the passage for vibraphone, cello harmonics, and solo double bass). The large battery of percussion is used to add flavour to these instrumental colorings.
Shostakovich utilizes several modern techniques for the percussionist, such as striking the rim of the snare drum in addition to the drum head, and triple-malleting for the glockenspiel. He has the snare drummer play several instruments at once: wood block, castanets and snare drum. This technique of scoring for multiple percussion instruments for one performer is now considered a standard method of writing in modern orchestral, solo, and ensemble literature.
Recordings of this symphony include:
Recordings of modified works of this symphony include:
|Orchestra||Record Company||Year of Recording||Format|
|Kremerata Baltica (version for piano, violin, cello, and percussion)||Deutsche Grammophon||CD|
According to filmmaker David Lynch, the symphony was a major influence on his film Blue Velvet (1986): "I wrote the script to Shostakovich: No. 15 in A major. I just kept playing the same part of it, over and over again".
- Shostakovich, Dmitri and Glikman, Isaak (2001). Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman. Cornell Univ Press. ISBN 0-8014-3979-5.