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Symphony No. 13 (Shostakovich)

The Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor (Op. 113, subtitled Babi Yar) by Dmitri Shostakovich was completed on July 20, 1962 and first performed in Moscow on 18 December 1962 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and the basses of the Republican State and Gnessin Institute Choirs, under Kirill Kondrashin (after Yevgeny Mravinsky refused to conduct the work). The soloist was Vitali Gromadsky. This work has been variously called a song cycle and a choral symphony since the composer included settings of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that concerned the World War II Babi Yar massacre and other topics. The five poems Shostakovich set to music (one poem per movement) are earthily vernacular and cover every aspect of Soviet life.[1]


  • Movements 1
  • Instrumentation 2
  • Overview 3
    • Background 3.1
    • Composition 3.2
    • Growing controversy 3.3
    • Premiere 3.4
    • Changed lines 3.5
    • Choral symphony or symphonic cantata? 3.6
    • Influence of Mussorgsky 3.7
  • Recordings 4
  • Footnotes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


  1. Babi Yar: Adagio (15–18 minutes)
    In this movement, Shostakovich and Yevtushenko transform the mass murder by Nazis of Jews at Babi Yar, near Kiev, into a denunciation of anti-Semitism in all its forms. (Although the Soviet government did not erect a monument at Babi Yar, it still became a place of pilgrimage for Soviet Jews.)[2] Shostakovich sets the poem as a series of theatrical episodes — the Dreyfus affair, the Białystok pogrom and the story of Anne Frank— as extended interludes to the main theme of the poem, lending the movement the dramatic structure and theatrical imagery of opera while resorting to graphic illustration and vivid word painting. For instance, the mocking of the imprisoned Dreyfus by poking umbrellas at him through the prison bars may be in an accentuated pair of quarter-notes in the brass, with the build-up of menace in the Anne Frank episode, culminating in the musical image of the breaking down of the door to the Franks' hiding place, which underlines the hunting down of that family.[3]
  2. Humour: Allegretto (8–9 minutes)
    Shostakovich quotes his setting of the Robert Burns poem "MacPherson Before His Execution" to colour Yevtushenko's imagery of the spirit of mockery, endlessly murdered and endlessly resurrected,[1] denouncing the vain attempts of tyrants to shackle wit.[2] The movement is a Mahlerian gesture of mocking burlesque,[3] not simply light or humorous but witty, satirical and parodistic.[4] The irrepressible energy of the music illustrates that, just as with courage and folly, humor, even in the form of "laughing in the face of the gallows" is both irrepressible and eternal (a concept, incidentally, also present in the Burns poem).[5] He also quotes a melody of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion by Bartók ironically, as response for the criticism toward Symphony 7.
  3. In the Store: Adagio (10–13 minutes)
    This movement is about the hardship of Soviet women during World War II. It is also a tribute to patient endurance. This arouses Shostakovich's compassion no less than racial prejudice and gratuitous violence.[3] Written in the form of a lament, the chorus departs from its unison line in the music's two concluding harmonized chords for the only time in the entire symphony, ending on an plagal cadence functioning much the same as a liturgical amen.[3]
  4. Fears: Largo (11–13 minutes)
    This movement touches on the subject of suppression in the Soviet Union and is the most elaborate musically of the symphony's five movements, using a variety of musical ideas to stress its message, from an angry march to alternating soft and violent episodes.[6] Notable here are the orchestral effects — the tuba, for instance, hearkening back to the "midnight arrest" section of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony — containing some of the composer's most adventurous instrumental touches since his Modernist period.[1] It also foresees some of Shostakovich's later practices, such as an 11-note tone row played by the tuba as an opening motif. Harmonic ambiguity instills a deep sense of unease as the chorus intones the first lines of the poem: "Fears are dying-out in Russia."[7] Shostakovich breaks this mood only in response to Yevtushenko's agitprop lines, "We weren't afraid/of construction work in blizzards/or of going into battle under shell-fire,"[7] parodying the Soviet marching song Smelo tovarishchi v nogu ("Bravely, comrades, march to step").[3]
  5. Career: Allegretto (11–13 minutes)
    While this movement opens with a pastoral duet by flutes over a B flat pedal bass, giving the musical effect of sunshine after a storm,[5] it is an ironic attack on bureaucrats, touching on cynical self-interest and robotic unanimity while also a tribute to genuine creativity.[2] It follows in the vein of other satirical finales, especially the Eighth Symphony and the Fourth and Sixth String Quartets.[1] The soloist comes onto equal terms with the chorus, with sarcastic commentary provided by the bassoon and other wind instruments, as well as rude squeaking from the trumpets.[5] It also relies more than the other movements on purely orchestral passages as links between vocal statements.[6]


The symphony calls for a bass soloist, bass chorus, and an orchestra consisting of 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling cor anglais), 3 clarinets, (2nd doubling Eb clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, castanets, whip, woodblocks, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, bells, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 harps (preferably doubled), celesta, piano, and strings.



Shostakovich's interest in Jewish subjects dates from 1943, when he orchestrated the opera Rothschild's Violin by Jewish composer Venyamin Fleishman. This work contained characteristics which would become typical of Shostakovich's Jewish idiom — the Phrygian mode with an augmented third and the Dorian mode with an augmented fourth; the iambic prime (a series of two notes on the same pitch in an iambic rhythm, with the first note of each phrase on an upbeat); and the standard accompaniments to Jewish klezmer music. After completing the opera, Shostakovich used this Jewish idiom in his Second Piano Trio, including a macabre Jewish dance in its finale that is said to reflect his horror on hearing the news of the Holocaust then reaching Russia.[8][9]

By 1948 Shostakovich had become familiar with an extensive collection of Jewish folk music located in Vilnius, Lithuania. This collection, despite being destroyed by the Germans during the war, had been preserved partially through I.L. Kagan's publication Jidiser folkor, which had appeared in Vilnius in 1938, and reconstructed by Moshe (Moisei) Beregovsky, who had access to recordings of Jewish folk songs made on field expeditions to the Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s. Bergovensky presented these songs as part of his PhD thesis at the Moscow Conservatory in 1946. One of the examiners of Bergovensky's thesis was Shostakovich.[10]

Shostakovich was drawn to the intonations of Jewish folk music,[11] explaining, "The distinguishing feature of Jewish music is the ability to build a jolly melody on sad intonations. Why does a man strike up a jolly song? Because he is sad at heart."[12]

Between 1948 and 1952 Shostakovich composed a series of works in which the Jewish idiom played a part. These works included the First Violin Concerto, the Fourth String Quartet, the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, the 24 Preludes and Fugues and the Four Monologues on Texts by Pushkin. The composition of these works coincided roughly with the virulent state-sanctioned anti-Semitism prevalent in Russia in those years, as part of the anti-Western campaign of Zhdanovshchina. The Soviet people were told that the Jews had to be excluded from Soviet life because they had an innate tendency to glorify the West. Jewish intellectuals were persecuted and Jewish institutions were shut down.[8][13] While Shostakovich's music on the whole was virtually banned during this period due to the Zhdanov decree,[14] smaller works such as the Fourth String Quartet and From Jewish Folk Poetry became widely known to many of the composer's compatriots through play-throughs at musicians' homes.[14]

Shostakovich returned to Jewish themes in 1959, including them in his First Cello Concerto, the Eighth String Quartet, the Thirteenth Symphony and the orchestral version of From Jewish Folk Poetry. In 1970, he also contributed to a collection of Jewish songs that was subsequently published.[8] The link between the Jewish theme and protests against the Soviet regime was most pronounced in the Thirteenth Symphony. In this work, Shostakovich dispensed with the Jewish idiom, as the text was perfectly clear without it.[2]

Shostakovich reportedly told fellow composer Edison Denisov that he had always loathed anti-Semitism.[15] He is also reported to have told musicologist Solomon Volkov, regarding the Babi Yar massacre and the state of Jews in the Soviet Union,

...It would be good if Jews could live peacefully and happily in Russia, where they were born. But we must never forget about the dangers of anti-Semitism and keep reminding others of it, because the infection is still alive and who knows if it will ever disappear.
That's why I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar"; the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko's poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko's poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.
People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko's poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.[16]

Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar appeared in the Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1961 and, along with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in Novy Mir, happened during a surge of anti-Stalinist literature during the premiership of Nikita Khrushchev. Publishers began receiving more anti-Stalinist novels, short stories and memoirs. This fad soon faded.[17]


The symphony was originally intended as a single-movement "vocal-symphonic poem."[18] By the end of May, Shostakovich had found three additional poems by Yevtushenko, which caused him to expand the work into a multi-movement choral symphony[2] by complementing Babi Yar's theme of Jewish suffering with Yevtushenko's verses about other Soviet abuses.[19] Yevtushenko wrote the text for the 4th movement, "Fears," at the composer's request.[2] The composer completed these four additional movements within six weeks,[18] putting the final touches on the symphony on July 20, 1962, during a hospital stay. Discharged that day, he took the night train to Kiev to show the score to bass Boris Gmiyirya, an artist he especially admired and wanted to sing the solo part in the work. From there he went to Leningrad to give the score to conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky.[20]

Yevtushenko remembered, on hearing the composer play and sing the complete symphony for him,

... I was stunned, and first and foremost by his choice of such apparently disparate poems. It had never occurred to me that they could be united like that. In my book [The Wave of a Hand] I didn't put them next to each other. But here the jolly, youthful, anti-bureaucratic "career" and the poem "Humor," full of jaunty lines, were linked with the melancholy and graphic poem about tired Russian women queueing in a shop. Then came "Fears Are Dying in Russia." Shostakovich interpreted it in his own way, giving it a depth and insight that the poem lacked before.... In connecting all these poems like that, Shostakovich completely changed me as a poet.[21]

Yevtushenko added, about the composer's setting of Babi Yar that "if I were to able to write music I would have written it exactly the way Shostakovich did.... His music made the poem greater, more meaningful and powerful. In a word, it became a much better poem."[22]

Growing controversy

By the time Shostakovich had completed the first movement on 27 March 1962, Yevtushenko was already being subjected to a campaign of criticism,[18] as he was now considered a political liability. Khrushchev's agents engendered a campaign to discredit him, accusing the poet of placing the suffering of the Jewish people above that of the Russians.[18] The intelligentsia called him a "boudoir poet" — in other words, a moralist.[23] Shostakovich defended the poet in a letter dated 26 October 1965, to his pupil Boris Tishchenko:

As for what "moralising" poetry is, I didn't understand. Why, as you maintain, it isn't "among the best." Morality is the twin sister of conscience. And because Yevtoshenko writes about conscience, God grant him all the very best. Every morning, instead of morning prayers, I reread - well, recite from memory - two poems from Yevtushenko, "Boots" and "A Career." "Boots" is conscience. "A Career" is morality. One should not be deprived of conscience. To lose conscience is to lose everything.[24]

For the Party, performing critical texts at a public concert with symphonic backing had a potentially much greater impact than simply reading the same texts at home privately. It should be no surprise, then, that Khrushchev criticized it before the premiere, and threatened to stop its performance.[19] Shostakovich reportedly claimed in Testimony,

Khrushchev didn't give a damn about the music in this instance, he was angered by Yevtushenko's poetry. But some fighters on the musical front really perked up. There, you see, Shostakovich has proved himself untrustworthy once more. Let's get him! And a disgusting poison campaign began. They tried to scare off everyone from Yevtushenko and me.[25]

By mid-August 1962, singer Boris Gmyrya had withdrawn from the premiere under pressure from the local Party Committee; writing the composer, he claimed that, in view of the dubious text, he declined to perform the work.[20] Conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky soon followed suit, though he excused himself for other than political reasons.[20] Shostakovich then asked Kyril Kondrashin to conduct the work. Two singers were engaged, Victor Nechipailo to sing the premiere, and Vitaly Gromadsky in case a substitute were needed. Nechipalio was forced to drop out at the last minute (to cover at the Bolshoi Theatre for a singer who had been ordered to "get sick" in a performance of Verdi's Don Carlo, according to Vishnevskaya's autobiography "Galina: A Russian Story", page 278). Kondrashin was also asked to withdraw but refused.[26] He was then put under pressure to drop the first movement.[19][26]


Official interference continued throughout the day of the concert. Cameras originally slated to televise the piece were noisily dismantled. The entire choir threatened to walk out; a desperate speech by Yevtushenko was all that kept them from doing so. The premiere finally went ahead, the government box empty but the theatre otherwise packed. The symphony played to a tremendous ovation.[27] Kondrashin remembered, "At the end of the first movement the audience started to applaud and shout hysterically. The atmosphere was tense enough as it was, and I waved at them to calm down. We started playing the second movement at once, so as not to put Shostakovich into an awkward position."[28] Sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, who was present, said, "It was major! There was a sense of something incredible happening. The interesting part was that when the symphony ended, there was no applause at first, just an unusually long pause—so long that I even thought that it might be some sort of conspiracy. But then the audience burst into wild applause with shouts of 'Bravo!'"[29]

Changed lines

Kondrashin gave two performances of the Thirteenth Symphony; a third was scheduled for 15 January 1963. However, at the beginning of 1963 Yevtushenko reportedly published a second, now politically correct version of Babi Yar twice the length of the original.[30] The length of the new version can be explained not only by changes in content but also by a noticeable difference in writing style. It might be possible that Yevtushenko intentionally changed his style of narrative to make it clear that the modified version of the text is not something he initially intended. While Shostakovich biographer Laurel Fay maintains that such a volume has yet to surface, the fact remains that Yevtushenko wrote new lines for the eight most offensive ones questioned by the authorities.[31] The rest of the poem is as strongly aimed at the Soviet political authorities as those lines that were changed so the reasons for these changes were more precise. Not wanting to set the new version to music, yet knowing the original version faced little chance of performance, the composer agreed to the performance of the new version yet did not add those lines to the manuscript of the symphony.[32]

Even with these changed lines, the symphony enjoyed relatively few performances — two with the revised text in Moscow in February 1963, one performance in Minsk (with the original text) shortly afterward, as well as Gorky, Leningrad and Novosibirsk.[33] After these performances, the work was effectively banned in the Soviet bloc, the work's premiere in East Berlin occurring only because the local censor had forgotten to clear the performance with Moscow beforehand.[34] Meanwhile, a copy of the score with the original text was smuggled to the West, where it was premiered and recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

Second to the "Babi Yar" movement, "Fears" was the most viciously attacked of the movements by the bureaucrats. To keep the symphony in performance, seven lines of the poem were altered, replacing references to imprisonment without trial, to neglect of the poor and to the fear experienced by artists.[6]

Choral symphony or symphonic cantata?

Scored for baritone, male chorus and orchestra, the symphony could be argued to be a symphonic cantata[35] or orchestral song cycle[36] rather than a choral symphony. The music, while having a life and logic of its own, remains closely welded to the texts. The chorus, used consistently in unison, often creates the impression of a choral recitation, while the solo baritone's passages create a similar impression of "speech-song." However, Shostakovich provides a solid symphonic framework for the work - a strongly dramatic opening movement, a scherzo, two slow movements and a finale; fully justifying it as a symphony.[35]

Influence of Mussorgsky

Shostakovich's orchestration of [38]



  1. ^ a b c d MacDonald, 231.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Maes, 366.
  3. ^ a b c d e Wilson, 401.
  4. ^ Blokker, 138.
  5. ^ a b c Wilson, 402.
  6. ^ a b c Blokker, 140.
  7. ^ a b As quoted in Wilson, 401.
  8. ^ a b c Maes, 364.
  9. ^ Figis, 511.
  10. ^ Wilson, 267.
  11. ^ Wilson, 268.
  12. ^ A Vergelis, Terror and Misfortune, Moscow, 1988, p. 274. As quoted in Wilson, 268.
  13. ^ Figis, 511—512.
  14. ^ a b Wilson, 269.
  15. ^ Wilson, 272.
  16. ^ Volkov, Testimony, 158—159.
  17. ^ Wilson, 399—400.
  18. ^ a b c d Wilson, 400.
  19. ^ a b c Maes, 367.
  20. ^ a b c Wilson, 403.
  21. ^ Quoted in Wilson, 413—414.
  22. ^ Quoted in Wilson, 413.
  23. ^ Maes, 366-7.
  24. ^ Quoted in Fay, 229.
  25. ^ Volkov, Testimony, 152.
  26. ^ a b Wilson, 409.
  27. ^ MacDonald, 230.
  28. ^ Quoted in Wilson, 409—410.
  29. ^ As quoted in Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, 274.
  30. ^ Wilson, 410.
  31. ^ Fay, 236.
  32. ^ Maes, 368.
  33. ^ Wilson, 410 footnote 27.
  34. ^ Wilson, 477.
  35. ^ a b Schwarz, New Grove, 17:270.
  36. ^ a b c Maes, 369.
  37. ^ Maes, 370.
  38. ^ Volkov, Testimony, 240.
  39. ^ "Decca Music Group | Catalogue". 


  • Blokker, Roy, with Robert Dearling, The Music of Dmitri Shostakovich: The Symphonies (London: The Tantivy Press, 1979). ISBN 978-0-8386-1948-3.
  • Fay, Laurel, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford: 2000). ISBN 978-0-19-513438-4.
  • Figes, Orlando, Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (New York: Picador, 2002). ISBN 978-0-312-42195-3.
  • Layton, Robert, ed. Robert Simpson, The Symphony: Volume 2, Mahler to the Present Day (New York: Drake Publishing Inc., 1972). ISBN 978-0-87749-245-0.
  • Maes, Francis, tr. Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans, A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002). ISBN 978-0-520-21815-4.
  • Schwarz, Boris, ed. Stanley Sadie, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: MacMillian, 1980), 20 vols. ISBN 978-0-333-23111-1.
  • Wilson, Elizabeth, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Second Edition (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994, 2006). ISBN 978-0-691-12886-3.
  • ed. Volkov, Solomon, trans. Antonina W. Bouis, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (New York: Harper & Row, 1979). ISBN 978-0-06-014476-0.
  • Volkov, Solomon, tr. Antonina W. Bouis, Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). ISBN 978-0-375-41082-6.

External links

  • Texts of the poems in Russian and English translation.
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