© Dmitri N. Smirnov



For myself and everyone else in Russia living during the epoch of Shostakovich, it was impossible to imagine contemporary culture without his music.And, like others, I couldn’t help but feel pride in the fact that somewhere nearby there was such an immense personality, such a giant figure in music living and creating his masterpieces.The music of Shostakovich was always in our ears: on waking we were “met with the fresh of the morning”;[1] by day we were sure that “the Motherland hears, the Motherland knows”;[2] by evening “the invasion theme” was rumbling;[3] and by nightfall the “torch was lit up – our continuous guard”;“Burn… burn… burn…” was repeated in Shostakovich’s song, again and again![4]

From time to time a modest and not quite healthy man with the hair of a boy and with suffering in his eyes appeared on our TV screen.Faltering and stammering, Shostakovich would share his creative plans with the people.Then he would either read or recite by heart the “right” and the “ideologically correct” slogans that, however, did not sit well with his appearance.Of course the Russian people knew that such conditions were ‘a gamble’ so to speak, and that it was impossible for Shostakovich to behave in any other way.The people knew and loved their composer.Even taxi-drivers treated the Romance from the film Gadfly as their favourite piece of “classical” music.[5]Everyone knew something about the disastrous Muddle Instead of Music[6] and also about the perhaps unnecessarily righteous Decree 1948,[7] and everyone felt compassion towards Shostakovich.Sometimes you could hear people speaking enigmatically in hushed tones that he also had some hidden pieces that were quite different, which perhaps would never be heard…And this was terribly intriguing.

In childhood, when asked what future profession I was going to choose, I would always answer “a composer”.They would ask “as Shostakovich?”“Of course, as Shostakovich, because Prokofiev has already died, and we are not going to count the rest!”Shostakovich and Prokofiev were the only two composers of contemporary music who had an influence on me at that time.In Russia it was hard to imagine a newer, a more contemporary “music of today” than the music of Shostakovich.However, by the time I had become a composer, there were some new strange names beginning to appear on the Soviet scene: Stravinsky, Ives, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Bartók, Britten, Messiaen, Cage, Nono, Xenakis – and one more not-so-easy to pronounce name, something like Stuckenschmidt or Stockhausen…[8] After these names appeared on the Russian scene it was of course not long before their unimaginable music began secretly leaking out.Then Boulez, followed by Lutoslawski and Penderecki, visited Moscow to conduct what struck us as such puzzling opuses, mixing and confusing everything in our, what seemed to be, entrenched outlook.


In the 1960s I lived very far away from Moscow – in Middle Asia in Frunze (now Bishkek), the capital of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic.As a student there in the music college, I took my first steps into composition.At that time I was very taken by the music of Prokofiev; his music struck me as incredibly fresh, witty and inventive, especially with regard to harmony and melody.As a result, Prokofiev’s influence was very noticeable in my first composing experiments.

But it was impossible to escape the influence of Shostakovich.His music had such an immense power that was able to grasp the listener entirely, despite the fact that it seemed to me more heavy and depressive compared with that the music of Prokofiev. I especially liked his Third and Eighth Quartets,[9] and was very impressed with his Fifth and Tenth Symphonies[10] (the latter I was fortunate enough to see performed live in Frunze).I used to listen to the opera Catherine Ismailova[11] on record, and I was captivated by Shostakovich’s piano music.Grigory Kozintsev’s film adaptation of Hamlet[12] became another love of mine and, of course, the soundtrack was written by Shostakovich.However, alongside these fascinations, lay pieces in the vein of his Festive Overture, his Eleventh Symphony[13] and especially his Twelfth Symphony, as well as the pompously played Overture on Russian and Kyrgyz Themes[14].All these “properly” crafted, official, and openly conformist, propaganda-type compositions produced a feeling of regret and perplexity.The question then arose: how was one to treat all of these works?It seemed to everybody that there was really two different Shostakovichs – each trying to strangle the other, and it was so difficult to predict the winner!

One day in my last year of college in Frunze I was chatting with the student-theoretician, Vera Karpachova, and out of the blue she showed me a whole collection of postcards that she had received, from none other than Shostakovich.The postcards were filled with his characteristically nervous, petite, undecipherable handwriting that was at that time unfamiliar to me.I simply could not believe my eyes!Karpachova, who was specialising as an opera stage director, explained that she had decided to study, and subsequently stage, the one-act opera Rothschild’s Violin (1941) by Veniamin Fleishman, who had been a student of Shostakovich.Rothschild’s Violin was perhaps Fleishman’s only musical creation and even this was left incomplete when he was killed at the very beginning of the Second World War at the age of 28.In memory of his talented student, Shostakovich completed and orchestrated Fleishman’s opera in 1944.[15]And because it was impossible to obtain a score of Rothschild’s Violin anywhere in Frunze, Karpachova had decided to write directly to Shostakovich for a copy of the score, and Shostakovich provided Karpachova not only with the score, but with all the necessary materials she would need to stage Fleishman’s opera, as well as answering all her questions connected with the expected staging.I was amazed by the daring and business acumen of my companion, who had taken the courage to contact Shostakovich who in my eyes was of course ‘up there with the Gods’.

I eventually moved to Moscow in 1967 and became a student at the Moscow Conservatory.Unfortunately, it had been a long time since Shostakovich had taught at the Conservatory,[16] so there was nobody as significant with whom I could study composition.Nevertheless, the musical life in Moscow was what could be described as extremely rich and full-blooded.First and foremost there were many concerts where Shostakovich’s pieces could be heard.During the years living in Moscow I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend almost all the Premieres of his music, beginning with the Second Violin Concerto[17] and ending with his Sonata for Viola and Piano[18].The only Shostakovich Premiere I missed was his Sonata for Violin and Piano,[19] which I managed to hear at a later date.

At concerts, Dmitry Dmitrievich would sit in the middle of the hall together with his wife Irina Antonovna, and at the end of each performance he would always walk out onto the stage (each year with what appeared to be increasing physical difficulty), making clumsy nods to the applauding hall, and everything would finish with standing ovations.Then later, off stage, there was always a huge queue, which I would worm my way into, hoping, if I was lucky, to shake hands with the Maestro.

On one occasion, after the third ring signalling the end of the interval when everyone else was already back in their seat, I was hurrying along an empty corridor to get back to my seat when suddenly I found myself face-to-face with Shostakovich, as he came out from the Artist’s Entrance.Immediately I spoke of my admiration to his music that we had just heard and introduced myself as a student-composer.Dmitri Dmitrievich warmly and, as it seemed to me, sincerely expressed his thanks and shook my hand.I shall remember this handshake for the rest of my life.

The most memorable of these performances included the Moscow premiere of the Fourteenth Symphony,[20] which for a long time was one of my favourite pieces, his Fourth Symphony that had remained unperformed for many years, and the opera Nose[21].These three compositions seemed to represent, as it were, the rumbles of a long expected thunder out of the suffocating, stagnant atmosphere of those officially repressed artistic times.They showed the face of the Shostakovich that we were not accustomed to for such a long time – his real face; not the face of forced hypocrisy. And these compositions effectively rehabilitated Shostakovich in the minds of those who were ready to categorise him as being entirely of the conformist camp.

A day which I very much regretted was the afternoon of 24th of June 1969, when I could not make it to the general rehearsal of Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony at Maly Hall of the Conservatoire.Rudolf Barshay was the conductor, and Dmitri Dmitrievich himself was giving an introductory speech.The word afterwards was that during the rehearsal of the fifth movement “On the Alert” the body of Apostolov was carried away from the foyer and out of Maly Hall..“Apostolov who?” – “Pavel Ivanovich Apostolov, famous for his lampoons and denunciations of Shostakovich!”The tragedy of this occurrence could not conceal the symbolism that it contained – the oppressor and persecutor of the music of a genius died from this self-same music![22]

‘Death’ as a theme, was included in what was known to all Soviets as the official ‘Forbidden List’[23], and such themes were not allowed openly in the creative work of any Soviet artists, writers or composers – being deemed to be against the authorised principles of“Socialist Realism”.As a result, all artistic works of tragedy, if not concealed for example by a military-patriotic subject, were ruthlessly censored.Yet there took place a public performance of a whole piece on this ‘forbidden’ theme of Death, the Fourteenth Symphony, featuring the lyrics of the almost-equally ‘forbidden’ poets such as “Rilkes, Lorkas and other Guillaumes”[24].This performance represented a kind of revolution, defying the conditions and rules that had been set by the governing ideology, and it was like a slap in the face to all the executive party servicemen attending the concert who simply seemed to be going out of their minds with not knowing how to react!

However the essence of this revolution lay in the music itself – brave, distinctive, incredibly strong and, in some respects, quite new for all of us.And what themes! The beginning itself (De Profundis), for example, was so melodious and beautiful but replete with open and hidden meanings that could be perceived even by the “unarmed ear”; and it was clear that all was created from the monograms of Bach, Shostakovich and “Dies Irae”.It begins with the “Dies Irae” motive: Bb–A–?b–G, (whose semitone-intervals give: –1+1–3), and which represents the eternal symbol of Death. This “Dies Irae” motive appears at least five times in its basic form, and once in inversion.

Example 1: Fourteenth Symphony Op. 135 (1969), movement I, the opening

Also embedded within this structure is a ‘sound monogram’ (or motto), of arguably the greatest composer of all time: “B–A–C–H” (spelt in German as: B=Bb and H=B natural, whose semitone-intervals give: –1+3–1), and which frames the 12-note succession of the tones (bars 1 – 5): 

Bb–A–G–D–Db–Ab–Gb–F–Eb–E–B–C (not counting repetitions).

What do we suppose this signifies?Is it just playing with a Schoenberg-style of composition, or is it a conscious necessity as in late Stravinsky?Later in this paper I will attempt to answer this question.However, it is surely quite possible that such attempts to construct 12-tone rows represented a deliberate act of provocation by Shostakovich against the governing ideology, as dodecaphony too was in the list of “forbidden means” to composers.Incidentally, in the “Druzhba” (“Friendship”) shop around the corner in Gorky street just a few steps from Shostakovich’s house,[25] the book The Classics of Dodecaphony by Boguslaw Shaeffer was for sale (even if it was only available in Polish)![26]

It is possible in this symphony to find multiple use of the monogram of Shostakovich in the hidden “ciphered” form “D–S–C–H” (spelt in German, which, when translated in English is D–Eb–C–B with the intervallic structure (+1–3–1).My analysis shows this fragment to contain six appearances of D–S–C–H.In the first presentation of the monogram it appears in bars 7 – 8 transposed down a tone giving C-Db-Bb-A, and it is constructed in such a way that three of its notes simultaneously overlap with the B-A-C-H monogram.Perhaps, by way of such encryption, Dmitri Dmitrievich wished not only to express his profound admiration for Bach, but also wanted to communicate how much he felt himself to be indebted to Bach, and to acknowledge feeling utterly beholden to the Great Master!

It is interesting that this encrypted gesture to relate himself to Bach appears in another presentation, this time in the accompanied voices of the last bars of the 12-bar instrumental introduction. Here the second violins delineate Shostakovich’s monogram in the transposed form of “C-Db-Bb-A” again, overlaps simultaneously with the “Bb-A” of the beginning of Bach’s monogram (the harmonic support in violas sound a fifth lower, “Eb-D”, which happens to be the beginning of Shostakovich’s monogram in retrograde form).It is not difficult to identify many other quotations and quasi-quotations, for example, the inverted form of the “Dies irae” motive coincides with Catherine’s motive at the very beginning of the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District: “[Ah,] … no sleep at all…”(or in the later version “[Ah,] … it is so boring…”: +1–1+3–3)[27].

I would now like to return to the question of dodecaphony.In the 60’s for me as well as for everyone else, this question was especially fascinating.For example, I was intrigued to find evidence of the use of 12-tone rows in tonal music of past composers such as Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov – especially as this seemed to ‘vindicate’ my attraction to what was officially perceived as the forbidden sphere of 12-tone music.Also (and perhaps less surprisingly), it is not difficult to find evidence of the use of 12-tone rows in the music of Shostakovich, both in his earlier as well as in his later works[28].Shostakovich’s Sonata for Violin and Piano written just before the Fourteenth Symphony in the same gloomy and pessimistic mood, although entirely instrumental, seems to me without doubt to convey the same “forbidden” theme of Death, commencing with a piano introduction of the following 12-note series: 

Example 2: Violin SonataOp.134 (1968) movement I, the opening

This note row, presented in what could be described as a skyward-directed construction, is then transformed in bar 13 by way of a precise inversion to be directed earthwards.[29]The violin is placed alongside this pattern, slowly spelling out the pitches of the D-S-C-H monogram: D-Eb-Db-C-B, etc.It seems more than apparent what this passage is supposed to represent; a sad, musical-philosophical discourse about the soul of the composer on its way to face Death: will the soul rise to heaven, will it sink deeply beneath the soil, will it fly around whither and thither, or, will it simply disappear, crushed by heartless Death?

I am convinced that further analysis of such a series can greatly clarify our understanding of how composers structure their compositions.From the moment a composer decides to base thematic material on this or that series, the process of composition itself is principally transformed – that is to say, such a composition grows from a given pre-compositional procedure of a more or less abstract chain of pitches or intervals, and only then, on the basis of this chain, does the process of the construction of a thematic structure emerge.It is very well known that the New-Viennese composers formed their series not only by a variety of logical, organic schemata, but also with the aid of inspiration, and they treated their choice of a given series “almost as seriously as marriage”[30]

Let us now attempt to analyse Shostakovich’s 12-note row; reduced to the “fundamental” intervals it is presented:

Example 3: Violin SonataOp.134 (1968), movement I, the 12-note row

The main intervallic content of the row is the tritone – in semitones: ±6 (plus/minus, because an inverted tritone gives the same interval – a tritone) – which is presented five times as if “quilting” the row throughout.The series begins with an ascending fourth, with another descending fourth near the end of the row.The remaining intervals of the row are: an ascending major third, a minor second and two descending major seconds.

There is no doubt in my mind that Shostakovich possessed a very refined sense of the intervals, which could convey in his music a special expressiveness and certain symbolic meaning.It always seemed to me that for Shostakovich, the elementary interval of the fourth is somehow connected with the image of Death, and during some recent research I identified what I believe is corroborative proof of this: “the ascending fourth… is the staple for Shostakovich’s symbol of imperative faceless power…that could be applied to the ascending fifth as well”.[31]In the Violin Sonata the initial fourth (as well as its inversion, the fifth) serves as a certain ‘leit-interval’ associated with the image of heartless Death.The mysterious fourths played tremolo sul ponticello that enclose the first and third (final) movements of this piece could be labelled as the leitmotif of “mortification” (or “necrosis”).In the Second movement of the Fourteenth Symphony the same interval of the fourth plays a similar role. 

If we attempt to analyse the initial series of the Fourteenth Symphony, we will immediately see the strictest logic of its organisation that could not be “created by chance”.The series, reduced to its simplest intervals, is presented as gradually descending: “where to?” – you may ask, “ to the grave!” – can be the only answer.

Example 4: Fourteenth Symphony Op. 135 (1969), movement I, the 12-note row

In forming this 12-tone series only two intervals are used– the second and the fourth.To be precise; Shostakovich presents three descending minor seconds, three descending major seconds, three descending perfect fourths and two ascending minor seconds, and as can be seen, the choice is very limited!The row is simply divided into 3 x four-note segments, each consisting of a descending fourth and two seconds.The first two segments which are divided by the minor second are in perfect symmetry to each other, as in the Principal or Prime Form P (–1–2–5), and in the Retrograde Inversion RI (–5–2–1).We might by analogy, compare these segments with the figures of the Father-Creator and his Likeness – his son Adam, who reach out their hands to touch each other on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; there is no doubt that Shostakovich’s eyes were fixed more than once on this wonderful Michelangelo fresco).The third segment differs from the two previous, in that it is symmetrical unto itself, presented as a descending fourth surrounded by two ascending minor seconds:what might this resemble?Why of course, the Cross on the grave!)

In its strict architectonics and mirror symmetry, Shostakovich’s row can only be compared with some of Anton von Webern’s series in his late compositions. Of course, we will not find a faithful reproduction of the 12-tone technique of the New-Viennese Masters by looking at the treatment or development of this row in Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony.However, some conscious and perhaps intuitive workings of the series seem nevertheless to be present.If we look for example at how the segments of Shostakovich’s row are “shuffled” in the continuation of this musical fragment: 10–11–12, – 4–5, – 1–2–3, – 7–6, – 8–9, – the technique is seen very much to resemble that which can be found for example, in Pierre Boulez’s Notations.I am sure that if we were to “dig deeper” in this direction, that we could expect to find similar surprising discoveries.[32]

It is not possible to stop speaking about the Fourteenth Symphony!For example, how wonderful is the theme Three Lilies[33], this grandiose and even earth-shaking musical symbol!Or, the introductory xylophone passage from the fifth movement On the Alert, a dodecaphonic theme that could be memorised like a simple song: 

Example 5 Fourteenth Symphony Op. 135 (1969), movement V, On the Alert,

I would suggest to the reader that they analyse at their leisure this extremely interesting yet not difficult series:

Example 6

Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony was and is viewed by many as being the major musical event of its time. After first hearing the work I was convinced that it represented the highest pinnacle within Shostakovich’s many peaks, and what more, I realised that this conviction would never fade.

In the autumn of 1969 I began studying instrumentation with Edison Vasilievich Denisov.Almost from the first lesson I began to express my zeal for Shostakovich’s Fourteenth.Denisov agreed – the Fourteenth was very good, but he felt the instrumentation (strings and percussion) to be anaemic, colourless, and inexpressive.Such a view was, for me, a complete shock. At that time Denisov had the idea of re-orchestrating the Fourteenth for large symphony orchestra.I imagined to myself how wonderful it would be if an exquisite Master of orchestration such as Denisov were to undertake such a plan!And I am still terribly sorry that Denisov’s idea has never been realized.

23 – 27 August 2004

Text edited by Helen Tipper and Guy Stockton

[1] Text set from the patrioticSong of the Counter-plan by Boris Kornilov, from the film The Counter-plan Op. 33 (1932), which was later included in at least three more of Shostakovich’s compositions (Opp. 74, 78 and 105).The title Song of the Counter-plan has been changed in English translation into The United Nations with a new version of the text: “The sun and the stars are all ringing with song rising strong…”The song was immensely popular both in Russia and abroad.
[2] From the patriotic song The Motherland Hears, text by Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, Op. 86 No. 1 (1951).This song was so popular that the first Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, sang it as he returned to Earth from Space on 12 April 1961.
[3] From the first movement of the Seventh Symphony Op 60 (1941).
[4] Text set from The Torches (or Song of the Lantern) by Mikhail Svetlov, from “Victorious Spring” Op. 72(1945).
[5] In the middle of the 1970’s I frequently used to hear the “Romance” being sung by taxi-drivers in Sochi. The Gadfly Op. 97 (1955).
[6] In the newspaper Pravda, 28 January 1936, an article with a crass criticism of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk DistrictOp.29 (1930-2).
[7]Decree on Formalism in Music issued on 10th February 1948, containing harsh criticism of a group of composers which included Shostakovich.
[8] Instead of Stockhausen, the West German critic Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt (1901-1988) was mentioned in a Pravda article, signed by Shostakovich.It said: “I am unable to distinguish Boulez’s music from that of Stukenschmidt”; it is very unlikely that Shostakovich really wrote this himself –these articles were usually written by the quite ignorant “apparatchiks”. See Elizabeth Wilson (1994): Shostakovich, A Life Remembered (Faber and Faber) p.431-2.
[9]Opp. 73 (1946) and 110 (1960).
[10]Opp. 47 (1937) and 93 (1953).
[11]Op114 (1963 version).
[12]Op. 116 (1964).
[13] This year in London (2004) having heard the Eleventh Symphony Op. 96 (1955) performed with Mstislav Rostropovich, my attitude to it has changed very much for the better.
[14] Opp. 103 (1957), 112 (1961), and 115 (1963).Later, the Symphonic poem October, Op. 131 (1967), was added to this list.There remains at least one composition by Shostakovich which I have not yet heard:The Song of the Forests Op. 81 (1949), and for a good reason: I do not want to be disappointed again.
[15] Shostakovich did not allocate an Opus number to his orchestration of Rothschild’s Violin, as he had done with some of his other orchestrations. Perhaps it will never be possible to define the extent of Shostakovich’s insight into the fabric of the music of Fleishman, as Fleishman’s manuscript of Rothschild’s Violin has not survived.However, it is possible to speak successfully of Fleishman’s insight into the fabric of the music of Shostakovich, as from that time Shostakovich had begun to show a special interest in Jewish folklore (upon which Fleishman’s Opera was based), starting with Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio Op.67 (1944), his First Violin Concerto Op. 77 (1948) and the cycle in From Jewish Folk Poetry Op. 79 (1948), etc.
[16] Shostakovich taught at the Moscow Conservatory from 1943 until he was dismissed in 1948.Later, from 1961, he taught at the Leningrad Conservatory.
[17] The Premiere of the Second Violin Concerto Op.129 (1967), with the soloist David Oistrakh conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, took place in the Bolshoy Hall of the Conservatory on 26th September 1967.
[18] This refers to the Moscow Premiere of the Viola SonataOp.147 (1975), the last piece to be performed by Shostakovich in the House of Composers, on 6th of October 1975.At the same concert, the Premiere took place of my own Sonata for Flute and Harp, Op. 16 (1975).
[19]The Premiere of the Violin SonataOp.134 (1968) with David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter took place on 3rd of May 1969 in the Bolshoy Hall of the Conservatory.At that time I had a special interest in this composition because I had just completed my own First Violin SonataOp.5 (1969).Unfortunately though, I had arrived just as the concert had started and was not permitted to enter the hall.
[20] Op. 135 (1969).
[21] Opp. 43 (1935-6) and 15 (1927-8).
[22]In his letter to Isaak Glikman, Shostakovich himself (on the same day) depicted this incident.SeeLetters to a Friend (Письма к другу, С-Птб. 1993, с. 258).
[23] Other such ‘forbidden’ themes included religion, sex, propagation of evil and violence, anticommunism, etc.
[24] This is the literal quotation from the speech of the Chairman of the Board of the Moscow Union of Composers, Serafim Tulikov.“Guillaumes” refers to Apollinaire.
[25] Shostakovich was living at that time in Nezhdanova Street (now Bryusov Lane)8/9 – 23,MoscowL-9.
[26] I missed the opportunity to buy the two-volume edition of Boguslaw Schäffer’s Klasycy Dodekafonii, (Krakow 1964), however, I did manage to read it in the library of the Conservatory.
[27] «[Ах,] ...не спится больше...» or «[Ах,] ...тоска какая...»  For further details see Levon Akopyan: Dmitri Shostakovich (Левон Акопян: Дмитрий Шостакович, СПтб 2004, с. 379).
[28] For examples, see The Seven Poems of Alexander Blok Op.127 (1967); Twelfth Quartet Op. 133 (1968), Violin Sonata Op. 134 (1968), Thirteenth Quartet Op. 138 (1970) etc.
[29] This type of inversion technique is used in a similar way to the New-Viennese composers and it can also be found in the Second Movement of the Fourteenth Symphony in which the music illustrates the text: “Death came in and went out of the Tavern.
[30] See Anton von Webern’s Lecture of 26th February 1932 (In: Russian – Веберн: Лекции о музыке. письма, М.1975, с.79, and also in Webern, 1975: The Path to the New Music (Universal Edition) p. 54).
[31] Levon Akopyan: Dmitri Shostakovich, p. 377.
[32] In his publications (see Dmitri Shostakovich and the article about the Fourteenth Symphony in Musical Academia – “Художественные открытия 14 симфонии” в журнале Музыкальная Академия 1997, №4); Levon Akopyan takes the first but important step in trying to understand the processes of creation of “the series” in the music of Shostakovich.  In my opinion however, Akopyan’s analysis would benefit from much closer scrutiny.
[33] These are the first words in the fourth movement, The Suicide.