Symbolism in Shostakovich’s Music

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Symbolism in Shostakovich’s Music
автор D. Smirnov-Sadovsky
Дата создания: 2005. Источник: Private archives

Symbolism in Shostakovich’s Music

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich (1906—1975) quite often used in his music many different hidden messages introducing some pitch or rhythmic patterns, or making some musical quotations and self-quotations (quotations from his own music). The examples include Dies-Irae motif, BACH motif, (see, for example, the beginning of his 14th Symphony, Op. 135, 1969) the openning of Suliko-Song (the famous Georgian tune — the Stalin’s favourite — hidden in the texture of his First Cello Concerto, op. 107, 1959 or quoted openly in his “Antiformalistichesky Rayok”), quotations from the music of Rossini, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rakhmaninov, folk songs etc., that have more or less clear meaning and able to transmit some messages. They have been used as sort of musical symbols that can be understood only by some “special” or “initiated” listeners.

Some of these messages have a very personal and even intimate context[1]. So, his 5th String Quartet Op.92 (1959) contains the hidden message concerning his romance-relation with his pupil, the composer Galina Ustvolskaya — in the Third movement (figure 117) it is possible to recognize a quotation from Ustvolskaya’s Clarinet Trio (1949). In some other cases the scholars argue that they have found in his music several sardonic portraits of Stalin (in his Symphonies Nos. 8, 9 or 10) or some other sorts of political satire.

And sometimes works that looked politically or ideologically correct, and suitable to the requirements of the regime had the second quite opposite meaning that was deeply hidden from the Soviet authorities. This sort of Aesopian language, special art of the double meaning was in core of the aesthetic and composer’s technique of Shostakovich. And he was not alone in the society where the open speaking was dangerous and even life threatening to the speaker.

It is quite possible that some of these secret symbols or messages are still unsolved or even will be never unsolved. Also it is possible that the reading of some of these messages is wrong and moves away the attention of the listener from the music itself. But for the scholars these messages have a great interest, because they help to understand the motives and ideas standing behind this music.

The most famous of these musical symbols of Shostakovich is the DSCH motif. DSCH are the initial letters of the name Dmitri Schostakowitsch in German spelling, where S (or Es) = E-flat, and H = B, encrypted in some Shostakovich’s works. For he first time the DSCH motif has appeared in Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony Op.93 (1953) — written in the year of Stalin’s death. The Symphony “is an archetypal First Thaw period work” and “also a monument to his assertion of independence. It represents a return to the genre, after a break of eight years during the period of renewed artistic repression after the War”[2].

There are four movements in the Symphony:

  1. Moderato
  2. Allegro
  3. Allegretto
  4. Andante/Allegro

The Symphony has almost monothematic quality: the most of the themes of this four-movement cycle have a hint of the DSCH motif. For example, here is the first (principal) theme of the 3rd Movement (Allegretto):

Example 1

Shosta 10 Symph III-1.jpg

All the notes are taken from his name — Dmitry Shostakovich — but in the shuffled order. The rhythm of the beginning of the melodic line as well as the accompanying pattern (see the bars 3-6) suggests the reading “Myten’ka” — the composer’s pet-name[3].

However, clearly the DSCH motif appears for the first time in the second (subordinate) theme of the third movement[4]:

Example 2

Shosta 10 Symph III-2.jpg

The music has a rather Eastern — oriental — colour that possibly has a special reason. That time Shostakovich was very much attracted with his pupil, the Azerbaijani pianist, and composer Elmira Nazirova[5]. Her name is appeared in the middle section of the same movement in horn’s part (in the mixed French/German spelling E—La—MI—Re—A) and repeated 12 times (see the beginning of the Example 3). In the climax bb.359-410, both themes are suppressed by the orchestral tutti.

When appeared the last time the ELMIRA’s theme is clearly coupled with the DSCH motif — the name of Shostakovich himself:

Example 3

Shosta 10 Symph III-3.jpg

Since that the DSCH motive as a sort of composer’s signature reappeared in some of his scores including his 8th String Quartet Op.110 (1960), “Preface to my Collected and Short Reflection on This Preface” Op. 123 (1966), and 14th Symphony op. 135 (1969)[6].

The 8th String Quartet has five movements:

  1. Largo (attacca)
  2. Allegro molto (attacca)
  3. Allegretto (attacca)
  4. Largo (attacca)
  5. Largo

In July 1960 Dmitri Shostakovich went to East Germany to write the music to the film about the 2nd World War "5 Days and 5 Nights". But instead he composed his 8th String Quartet in 5 movements in which he used his monogram DSCH as the main theme, which appear in all five movements of the cycle. He quoted here his favourite themes from his own 1st, 8th and 10th Symphonies, the Piano Trio, 1st Cello concerto and opera "Lady Macbeth". Also he quoted the Funeral March from Wagner's "Götterdämmerung", the 2nd theme from 6th Symphony by Tchaikovsky and folk dirge "Tormented by Grievous Bondage". Shostakovich treated the piece as a Requiem to himself and was really going to commit suicide after the great shame of his life: he had been pressurised to join the Communist Party just a week before. The music is very tragic, profound, and powerful as well as incredibly moving. Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman: "while composing it, my tears flowed as abundantly as urine after downing half a dozen beers." The Quartet was played at his funeral ceremony on the 14th of August 1975.

There is the opening:

Example 4

Shosta 8 Quartet.jpg

The “Preface to my Collected and Short Reflection on This Preface” for bass and piano was written for his own 60th birthday. He set to music his own text paraphrased a short ironic poem by Alexander Pushkin — the epigram that was titled “Story of a Rymer”. Shostakovich takes this epigram as a “starting point, and in a mood of subversive caricature goes on to cite a long list of his own titles and duties, delighting in self-parody”[7]. It was typical mocking. The composer allowed himself a pleasure to spell in music the initials RSFSR and SSSR (the abbreviations for Russian State Federation of Socialist Republic and the Soviet Union):

Example 5

Shosta Preface.jpg

The Soviet authorities did not understand this 2-minute joke; of course, it was very much unwelcome for them. After a few public performances the piece was completely taken of the repertoire, at least until Shostakovich death in 1975 and even later. It was not published until 1984.

23 January 2005, St Albans


  1. Exactly as some pieces of Alban Berg (like his Lyric Suite for string Quartet) that have been decoded recently by some meticulous musicologists.
  2. See David Fanning. Shostakovich: String Quartet No.8, Ashgate 2004 p. 32.
  3. The same, p. 36.
  4. The movement functions as a slow movement of the sonata cycle is written in a free form with some features of Rondo-Sonata.
  5. See Elizabeth Wilson. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, p. 263.
  6. About the symbolism in his 14th Symphony I already wrote in the article “My Shostakovich” that is available on the internet:
  7. The same, p. 394.

© by D. Smirnov-Sadovsky

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