Symphony No. 15 (Shostakovich)

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 (attacca)
#Adagio - Allegretto

Despite the subtitle, the work never so much as passes through the key of A-major until shortly after rehearsal number 143, half-way through the fourth movement. The first movement is in A-minor, the second in F-minor, and the third in G-minor.


Deceptively, the composer likened the first movement to 'a toy shop', referring to a superficial sense of child-like innocence and naiveté which is soon corrupted: not unlike that of his own infancy. The movement opens with two chimes on the glockenspiel, and a lengthy passage for the solo flute, growing out of a quirky motif which flits between Ab-major and A-minor (connected by a C-natural), accompanied by slow-changing but lively chords for pizzicato strings. 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 unpredicatable employment of variable shatter any sense of real innocence. Though Shostakovich often quotes rhythms from Rossini's "William Tell Overture", in this movement he quotes the tune as well (see quotations).

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 langorous 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 impassionated 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 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. At rehearsal letter 29, he makes use of an 8:6:5 polyrhythm.


The work is written for:;Woodwind:

:Piccolo:2 Flutes:2 Bb Clarinets:2 Oboes:2 Bassoons

;Brass::4 French horns:2 Trumpets:3 Trombones: Tuba

;Percussion::4 Timpani:Bass drum:Snare drum:Soprano tom-tom drum:Cymbals:Tam-tam:Triangle:Castanets:Wood block:Whip (instrument):Xylophone:Glockenspiel:Vibraphone


;Strings::16 1st Violins:14 2nd Violins:12 Violas:12 Cellos:10 Double basses

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 he does not call for the E-flat 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, almost like a melée 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.


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 skilful is his manipulation of the famous grief leitmotif from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde at the end of the fourth movement. Beginning at rehearsal letter 143 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).


Recordings of the work include:

* U.S.S.R. Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich (Melodiya) (available on LP only)
* London Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich (Collins)
* Prague Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich (Supraphon)
* Cleveland Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling (Erato)
* Berlin Symphony Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling (Eterna)
* Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling (BPO Series)
* Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Jarvi (Deutsche Grammophon)
* Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (RCA)
* Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Jesús López Cobos (Telarc)
* London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mariss Jansons (EMI)
* London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink (Decca)
* Kremerata Baltica (version for piano, violin, cello, and percussion) (Deutsche Grammophon)
* Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti (Decca)
* Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Charles Dutoit (Decca)
* London Symphony Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich (Teldec)
* Gurzenich Orchestra, Cologne/Dmitri Kitaenko (Capriccio)
* Verdi Symphony Orchestra, Milan/Oleg Caetani (Arts)
* Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Vakhtang Jordania (Angelok 1)
* WDR Sinfonieorchester/Rudolf Barshai (Brilliant Classics)
* Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ladislav Slovak (Naxos)
* Duisburger Philharmoniker/Jonathan Darlington (ACOUSENCE)


*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.

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