I was hoping to have more to say about Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony, which the CSO performs tonight through Sunday. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to make it to the library this week, and it’s a piece that demands a lot from the listener. It’s his final work, written in haste as death was upon him, a patchwork of quotations from the history of classical music (including, quizzically, the William Tell Overture). It’s sometimes funny, sometimes deeply sad, sometimes inexplicable – “Shostakovich’s deepest enigma,” according to Norman Lebrecht. Sort of like J Dilla’s Donuts except more about totalitarianism, to supply an opaque, anachronistic comparison.

Lebrecht, in his handy and engaging resource The Life and Death of Classical Music, argues that Kurt Sanderling, a friend of the composer, was his greatest interpreter: “Facing American orchestras, who knew nothing of the deprivation of Soviet life, he would patiently explain how a tuba wickedly portrays a party apparatchik on his first junket abroad, or a piccolo ironically punctures the arrogance of power” (p. 274).

SIU has a great collection of resources on Shostakovich and Soviet classical music, and here’s Sanderling in his own words on the 15th: 

“Even at that time he could have expressed himself more freely but because of his trauma he spoke of ‘childhood memories’, even of a ‘toy shop’ in the first movement; this is in fact appropriate, but in a quite different, dreadful sense. In this ‘shop’ there are only soulless dead puppets hanging on their strings which do not come to life until the strings are pulled. This first movement is something quite dreadful for me: soullessness composed into music, the emotional emptiness in which people lived under the dictatorship of the time.

“From my experience as a conductor I can say that this symphony makes the greatest impression of all on audiences. They feel the monstrosity of its content, in particular the last movement which is a tearful, deeply moving farewell to life. At the end when the percussion starts twittering and chirping, I always think of the intensive-care ward in a hospital: the person is attached to various contraptions and the dials and screens indicate that heartbeat and brain activity are gradually expiring. Then comes a vast convulsion and it’s all over. The listeners feel this too, or something like it, and are very shaken.”

If you haven’t heard it, the first movement might come as something of a surprise; for something expressing soullessness and emptiness, it’s actually surprisingly chaotic and overstuffed, with quotations of wildly varying import crashing against each other. The final movement is truly grave in the traditional, and sort-of-literal sense, but it’s also lovely in its gradual, precarious ascension; the delicate, rhythmic coda is indescribably odd and beautiful.

Alex Ross:

“Even in its usual guise, the Fifteenth is a monumentally eerie work — Shostakovich’s farewell to symphonic form, his serenade to all musical history. But in that ghostly, stripped-down version, at that hour of the night, in that remote place, it became a borderline religious experience of the kind described by William James (‘giving your little private convulsive self a rest’).”


“Was this despair? Defiance? Defeat? Sanderling presented a landscape of bleak beauty, a dying man’s tour through his life’s journey, rich in self-quotation and a gathering sense that all had not been in vain. There is no messianic message, no vain hope offered to successors – just a treasure trove of musical beauties and mysteries, the stuff of life” (p. 274).

It’s Lebrecht’s contention that Haitink’s treatment of Shostakovich isn’t what it could be (“performed the cycle with small nation neutrality” – ?) but beggars can’t be choosers. And besides, it’s a live performance; who knows what Haitink may have found in it in the meantime.

Update: In comments below, Norman Lebrecht (whose book noted above has been a fantastic resource for this classical newbie) notes that he was referring to an old Haitink Shostakovich cycle, and that his recent treatments have been fantastic.