About this work
The death of Josef Stalin on March 5, 1953, ushered in an era of freedom for Soviet artists. But, oddly enough, for nearly a decade following the dictator's passing, Shostakovich, one of the chief targets of Soviet censors in the past, wrote nothing of a radical or adventurous nature. In 1962, however, he broke out of his conservative shell and composed his Symphony No. 13, whose expressive language is deeper and more uncompromising than any of his then-recent compositions. Only the unwieldy Symphony No. 4, whose belated premiere took place in 1961, 25 years after its completion, is as challenging and substantive.
Even before the Symphony No. 13's premiere, Shostakovich was in trouble with the Khrushchev regime over it, though not, however, because of his music, but rather because of the texts he chose to set. The work uses five poems by Evgeny Yevtushenko, and it was the first of these in particular, "Babi Yar," from which the symphony derives its subtitle, that created the controversy. It tells of oppression of the Jews in Russia, an injustice Soviets felt the need to deny.
Over the objections of government officials, the premiere of the symphony took place in December 1962. It was a success, but pressures mounted to suppress or modify the work and a second performance had to be canceled. Bowing at last to the wishes of authorities, Yevtushenko and Shostakovich allowed the texts to be attenuated. Another performance took place, with the textual changes, after which the work disappeared from Soviet concert halls for nearly three years.
The Symphony No. 13 is made up of five movements, each having a subtitle pertaining to a Yevtushenko poem: Adagio ("Babi Yar"), Allegretto ("Humor"), Adagio ("In the store"), Largo ("Fears"), and Allegretto ("A career"). The chorus sings in unison or octaves throughout, except for a passage near the end of the third movement. The orchestral forces are sizeable, but Shostakovich's scoring tends to be sparing throughout, although there are outbursts of considerable power in several places.
The first movement is dark and dramatic, morbid and harsh. This bleak panel, with the bass soloist prominent throughout much of its duration, is an atmospheric and powerful setting of Yevtushenko's texts. The second movement is a Scherzo, and its "Humor" is often tart and brash.
The last three movements are continuous. The text of "In the store" praises the ordinary working woman. Shostakovich's music is subdued and dark throughout most of the movement, painting a bleak picture of life (which Soviet officials also could not have found much to their liking). The riveting climax in this section comes when the chorus sings (about women), "To shortchange them is shameful...." The austere and dark fourth movement deals with fears, as the chorus starts off whispering the word, effectively summoning a fearful atmosphere. The last movement, which offers text praising those with integrity in their careers, begins with an attractive, slightly sad waltz, although the mood throughout is brighter than in any previous panel. The ending is quiet, with the waltz turning gossamer, almost mystical.
In the last two decades of the twentieth century, this symphony gained considerable popularity both in the concert hall and on recordings. A typical performance of it lasts from about an hour to nearly 70 minutes.