Shostakovich's 15 Symphonies: Ranked


As a self-proclaimed Shostakovich fan, upon receiving the box set of the Liverpool Philharmonic’s recordings of all of his symphonies under Vasily Petrenko, I could hardly resist setting myself a little challenge to listen to them all and decide which was best. And so ensued my quest to rank each Shostakovich symphony, some of which, I’ll admit, I’d never listened to all the way through before.

Just a disclaimer before I start, though - this is based on how much I enjoyed each piece. That means that this really is just my opinion, and not a judgement on each piece’s musical worth. Of course, it stands to reason that if I think a piece is especially well written, it might add to my enjoyment, but this might not be the case. Also, it may have something to do with the specific recording I listened to, including the specific interpretation of the music by the conductor and the way it’s played. I’d also like to add that I think each piece really is great in its own way, and none of them are in any way ‘bad’.

I find Shostakovich’s music fascinating. He was mostly a neoclassicist, essentially he gravitated to that musical feeling of restraint and balance, but then did new things with those ideas. This sometimes means his pieces start off in a way which makes you think ‘oh, this is nice’ and then take an unexpected, dark and even sardonic turn. On top of this, he lived through some pretty dark times in early 20th-century Russia, even having some of his pieces banned or heavily criticised by the state media. This, in the time he lived in, could have resulted in his or his loved ones’ lives being put at risk - and yet here we are, with 15 symphonies. That shows a certain amount of resilience. So here are some brief thoughts on each piece in what I consider to be some sort of ranked order.

15. Symphony No. 3, Op. 20: ‘The First of May’

Shostakovich had an interesting thought about how to structure this one, in that (apparently) he attempted to compose a symphony with no recurring or developing musical motifs. Instead, we are presented with a kind of through-composed piece which at times presents moments similar to standard symphonic form, albeit with no (musical) thematic development. I’m sure the extra-musical side of things is a different story, but unfortunately unless you know the ins and outs of Shostakovich’s thought processes with this piece, it’s rather difficult to follow and get into. I think it’s interesting to present the needle that stitches the music together without actually using any thread, but I’m not sure about the end product here. And I’m not too sure if he was either, as he never did it again. It does have some lovely and interesting moments though, and you can really hear his musical voice beginning to find its ground.

14. Symphony No. 2 in B, Op. 14: ‘To October’

Another fascinating piece with some fascinating musical detail. One minute we are in the depths of a murky 12-tone type opening passage, the next we are having our heads turned inside out by a factory siren - and there’s also a choir. It’s a rollercoaster, and it’s all very worthwhile. But blimey, it’s over fast - and at the end I was not really sure what to make of it. What actually happened? Not too sure. But it was fun. Or was it? I do like how creative the musical content of the piece is, it feels very colourful. And I’d like to sing in the choir just so I can do the shouty-bits near the end. Yes, that’s the technical term.

13. Symphony No. 14, Op. 135

Now, before I start with this one, I’d really better stop using synonyms for the word ‘interesting’ when I didn’t particularly enjoy the listening experience of a piece. Ok, so there’s the admission - I didn’t enjoy the listening experience for this piece. And that was sort of disappointing, because many people call this Shostakovich’s best work. Conversely though, I might actually agree with this in technical terms. It’s incredibly well written and very unique. It’s perhaps more of an orchestrated song-cycle than a symphony, but the running theme of texts about death is executed with great balance. It’s atmospheric, shocking and thought-provoking by turns. So why is it so low down in my rankings? Well, the content is just so dark, so depressing and so brutal that the music fails to be anything I’d really want to listen to. Maybe I’d love to analyse it, but when listening I felt as though I was waiting for something to blow me away, and it never quite did.

12. Symphony No. 9 in E flat, Op. 70

This is actually a really amazing piece, and it feels really quite mean to have it at number 12 - but I guess that’s testament to how much I enjoyed the others more than anything. I’ve heard that Shostakovich initially planned a much bigger and longer symphony for his ninth, but felt he was following in the footsteps of a number of great ninths and so decided on this piece instead. It’s short, and brutally sarcastic. It begins innocently and gradually snowballs into a deep, dark depression as the movements continue, passing through mania and reflection. Its final movement is joyous on the surface, but as ever with Shostakovich, equivocal to the last note. It’s the final of the three symphonies composed during the second world war, and this piece arguably describes the terror, masked as joy, that Russia was left with once the war was over. Its momentum does, at times, totally cease to exist, but when just one or two more elements are introduced its haunting at its quietest and disturbing at its most energetic.

11. Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Op. 112: ‘The Year 1917’

People heavily criticise this symphony, and I don’t really think it’s all that bad. It’s a cryptic narrative centred around the life of Lenin, and given that Shostakovich had only recently become a party member before the composition of this piece, it’s argued that perhaps he was only really trying to tow the party line with this composition. I find it impossible not to believe that there’s something more to it though, as with pretty much all of his compositions. I saw this performed live by the Liverpool Philharmonic in Leeds a few years ago, and it really was a very exciting piece which takes the listener along with it. Sure, it is quite stereotypical on the surface, but even that’s done quite well. The music is very (understandably) filmic and truly embodies Shostakovich’s musical voice throughout.

10. Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10

This really is a remarkable piece, with a great amount of personality and musically exciting and enthralling moments. It’s extremely well crafted and balanced, which is very impressive for a first symphony. It scares me to think that Shostakovich submitted this for what was essentially his final project at university, although I guess that’s why he’s now famous and I’m not, isn’t it? There are claims that his musical voice was, shall we say, gently guided by his tutors - but of course this is true, that’s what happens. This would also explain why there is such a variation in tone between his first and second symphonies. It’s a great piece, and very well written, and as a listener I was emotionally satisfied from pretty much every angle, which is exactly what you’d want. It’s not any higher up because I can’t shake the feeling that at times, it’s not really that expressive of Shostakovich’s style. Only at times, though.

9. Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54

Oh wait, sorry…

For a three-movement symphony, No. 6 is remarkably varied. Its first movement, a largo, lasts around 22 minutes, which is over half of the length of a performance. It’s almost neo-baroque in its musical language, with serpentine, brooding string writing and grinding bitonality. Its final two movements are much shorter and completely different in tone, with some really exciting, even fun moments. It covers everything you’d ever want to hear in a symphony and everything is exceptionally executed. There’s even constant momentum and interest even in the slower sections. All that lacks is any apparent musical connection between the movements. That said, I’d listen to each of the three movements on their own any day.

8. Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65

This is the point in my list whereby even the most depressing musical content becomes deeply fascinating and far from disappointing. This symphony is the most overtly bleak of the three war symphonies (in my opinion), and maintains an astonishing sense of intensity throughout a vastly changing musical landscape. Its vivid depiction of war is expertly woven together and deeply powerful. There are clear similarities between previous works by Shostakovich, especially his fifth and seventh symphonies, and it even starts pretty much identically to No. 5. So, although some of the musical content doesn’t seem all that original when listening to all the symphonies in order, it’s still a solid symphony with proven musical foundations that is incredibly consistent, fascinating and evocative.

7. Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 113: ‘Babi Yar’

Another fine example of a piece which is pretty inherently depressing, yet still something I’d find some form of satisfaction in listening to. It sort of paves the way for No. 14 in that it is essentially a collection of five orchestrated songs, although arguably in this one there’s more of a symphonic structure and feel here. The five songs describe life in Russia at the time of composition (1962), and it’s really bleak. We hear links between anti-semitic events of the past and the oppression of women and the working class in Russia, surprisingly done sometimes through the use of Shostakovich’s trademark ‘serious’ humour. We also hear depictions of the fears of being taken away in the night for ‘stepping over the line’, something Shostakovich will have been acutely aware of. In fact, this symphony is captured quite well in the tone of Julian Barne’s novel ‘The Noise of Time’, which is well worth a read. This image of steady oppression and depression from a variety of different angles is really evocative and involving, and concludes with a reflection on how on earth an artist can make a living through expressing what really matters to them in an environment which really doesn’t facilitate it. It’s one of Shostakovich’s more subtly powerful pieces, which feels simultaneously personal yet resonant.

6. Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93

This is where things start to get really, properly, in-your-face good. It’s also one of the few that I’ve actually played cello in an orchestra for, and that experience was even more powerful than listening to it (if that’s even possible). Some argue this is a sort of celebration of the death of Stalin, but that’s oversimplifying it a little. There’s such depth and darkness to the opening of this symphony as it masterfully builds to something emotional and epic. Beyonce then comes along and does a little dance to the second movement, which is actually incredibly jarring (a friend once described it to me as ‘headache music’) but also sort of a bit rock-and-roll. The third movement might initially seem to be a little meandering before its big climax, but I find it to be evocative of the sorts of feelings one might feel when being attacked by a clown. It’s really quite menacing. I also find myself always second-guessing the final movement - is it joy, or really the opposite? Shostakovich’s unique style often makes this question impossible to answer. This is also a symphony of ciphers and melodic codes, perhaps most notably the DSCH motif which represents the composer’s name, constantly reappearing among other symbols and ciphers. Get Robert Langdon in.

5. Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 60: ‘Leningrad’

The story behind No. 7 really is remarkable and most certainly can’t be covered in a simple paragraph, but suffice to say parts of this music were flown in so that the musicians, whose lives Shostakovich was saving by having them perform the premier, could rehearse. The siege of Leningrad was an horrific event, where well over a million people died, and that provides the backdrop to this emotionally wrought, extremely powerful piece. We have a relentless march in the opening movement which builds and builds to a dual sense of devastation and determination, which is mirrored in the symphony’s final moments, as twisting harmonies resolve in a rousing, deeply powerful finale. As a piece of music, it’s excellent. As a means of empowering the resolve of those suffering as well as representing the truth of what was going on to the rest of the world, it’s truly a masterpiece.

4. Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103: ‘The Year 1905’

I really wasn’t expecting this one to be so high up (‘neither was I!’ I hear you cry) but what really shook me to the core with this piece was how vivid its imagery is, and how powerfully it conveys a narrative. It somehow does all the storytelling of an opera, but without any words. Often cited as Shostakovich’s most Mussorgskian symphony, no. 11 depicts the Bloody Sunday massacre of the 9th January 1905 in Russia, in which unarmed protesters were shot at and killed in large numbers by soldiers at the palace of Tsar Nicholas II. Shostakovich’s grandfather was involved in this, so there are ties there already, but arguably echoes of the attitudes which lead to this in 1905 were around at the time of composition, too. The icy stillness at the beginning is among one of the most vivid moments of imagery in a symphony, and things only get more intense from there. The movements depict what happened in the lead-up, the massacre itself, its aftermath and its long-term and emotional repercussions. The whole thing is written and paced masterfully, feeling involving, tense and horrific where necessary. The balance of the piece is such that by the incredibly intense ending, I was left almost literally with my jaw on the floor.

3. Symphony No. 15 in A, Op. 141

Written and conceived partially from hospital in his latter years, Shostakovich’s 15th symphony seems to me to be a terrifyingly frank examination of coming to the end of life. The first movement uses that trademark Shostakovich musical sarcasm to capture a delirious sense of terror simultaneously with a sort of whimsical acceptance of fate. There are quotes from all sorts of things, such as the memorable theme from Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’, excerpts from Wagner, and Shostakovich’s own previous works as well as sound effects that might be heard in a hospital. The second movement is haunting and fascinating, with beautiful string solos and a haunting hymn-like quality which builds to an incredible emotional outpouring. Throughout, there are ciphers and codes, sometimes inverted from previous symphonies, and the whole thing concludes with a passacaglia which feels like it rips your brain out and squishes it a bit as death and emptiness stare you in the face, one final time - it’s really powerful stuff. The ending floats off into nothingness with little whispers and twitches. This is a symphony with such meaning behind it that presents all of the things Shostakovich had developed over a previous 14 symphonies, in a crystallised musical voice the likes of which arguably hasn’t been fully explored since his Symphony No. 5. Speaking of which…

2. Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

I’ll be honest, I was expecting this to be number one. I studied this symphony a few years ago so it’s probably the one I know the most about, and I’ve also played it (and yes, that may have influenced my love for it, how could it not?). This piece was Shostakovich’s response to being pretty much outcast by the state for writing an opera which was too raunchy and weird for Stalin to cope with, but this was quite serious, because as I’ve mentioned before there was the lingering and very realistic fear of death associated with not meeting the approval of Stalin. My own view is that this symphony is designed to seem more conventional and perhaps even patriotic, but hidden within are strange dissonances, passages that are just way too high to play nicely and a (not so hidden) heart-wrenching largo as a third movement. Perhaps, like in Symphony No. 13, what’s really going on here is a depiction of the strains and terrors of life in Stalinist Russia, designed to resonate with ordinary people (and it certainly did, earning a standing ovation of 30 minutes at its premier). The seemingly patriotic, uplifting ending is strained, but definitely triumphant - could this be the resolve of the self against the state, rather than the victory of the state? I think that’s very likely, but you can decide for yourself. This piece is also a really good illustrator of how Shostakovich uses conventional, ‘classical’ form, as the first movement is in sonata form (Exposition of the main themes, development of them, and then the recapitulation, where the original themes come back), however he extends the development to create a real sense of musical journey. This sort of thing is again prominent in his Eighth symphony. Shostakovich wrote, in his usual equivocal style, that this was the ‘Soviet artist’s response to just criticism’.

1. Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43

What can I say? I’ve even surprised myself. Shostakovich had studied orchestration and learned from Mahler’s musical language before writing this piece, which requires the largest orchestra of all of his symphonies. Ages ago, I listened to this and basically just thought ‘hmm… bit strange’ and so never really gave it a second thought. It’s on second, third and even fourth (and so on) listenings that this piece really starts to have its impact. I was right initially though, this piece doesn’t hold back on the craziness - so much so that after his previously-mentioned outcast-worthy opera, this piece was never premiered, and it was only first performed years later, along with his Symphony No. 12. I believe what this symphony represents is Shostakovich at his most artistically free. He had become an incredibly skilled composer, and had created this piece without restraint. We only really get back to this level of deep musical insight by Symphony No. 15 (in my humble opinion). The reason why this piece didn’t resonate with me as much on first listening is probably because there really are a lot of ideas going on at once, as it’s very dense - however this actually works in its favour on repeated listens and something new becomes apparent each time. Each melody line and harmony seems to go somewhere unexpected, but in a really engaging and creative way. In fact, there are certain notes in some of the melodies here that are so hauntingly brilliant that they feel as if they are being forever etched into my memory. The expanse of this piece is truly breathtaking, with incredible orchestral colour and texture. The ways in which themes are brought back and manipulated are so complex and impressive, and the emotional and musical breadth on display here is truly inspiring. It’s also, so I hear, an incredibly demanding piece to play (although… just listen to it, this is hardly a surprise). There are some incredibly exciting moments with such scope that it literally does become almost breath-taking. For me, this piece cements the fact that Shostakovich was a true musical genius.

Benjamin JacksonComment