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About this Piece

Composed: 1969

Length: 55 minutes

Orchestration: percussion (bells, castanets, tom-toms, slapstick, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone), celesta, strings, and soprano and bass soloists

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 15, 1981, Simon Rattle conducting, with soprano Felicity Palmer and bass Stafford Dean

That this is a symphony like no other by its composer is not only audible but visible the moment the stage personnel is in view: the conductor, of course, two vocal soloists (soprano and bass), and a chamber orchestra consisting only of percussion and strings. It is both a song cycle and vocal chamber music of the most profound significance - reflections on death by poets, only one of them Russian, who died young.

Regarding the choice of texts, Shostakovich wrote to his friend and de facto secretary, Isaak Glikman: "It occurred to me that there exist eternal themes and eternal problems, among which are those of love and death… Just before entering the hospital [he had suffered his second heart attack] I listened again to Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death [which Shostakovich had earlier orchestrated] and the idea of 'tackling death' came to fruition… I started selecting the verse, my choices coming quite at random. But it seems to me that they are given unity through the music. I composed very fast, continually afraid while writing the Fourteenth Symphony that something would happen to me - that my right hand would cease to function, that I would suddenly go blind, etc."

Not long thereafter, in comments prior to an early rehearsal of the work in 1969, the composer stated: "… I am trying to argue with the composers of the great classics, who portrayed the theme of death in their works. Let us remember the death of Boris Godunov: when he dies, a moment of 'lightness' seems to set in. Think of Verdi's Otello: here, too, when the whole tragedy ends, and Desdemona and Otello die, there is a wonderful calm. Or Aida, in which the tragic death of the heroes is softened by serene music. All this, it seems to me, originates in various religious beliefs, which suggest that though life may be bad, when you died everything would all right, and you could expect complete peace in the next world. To some extent I am following in the footsteps of Mussorgsky, whose Songs and Dances of Death are a protest against death, and a reminder that one should live one's life honestly, nobly, and decently. For alas it will be a long time before our scientists invent immortality, and death awaits us all. I see nothing good about such an end to our lives, and that is what I have tried to express in my new work."

Nos. 1 and 2 of the Symphony are settings of the playwright-poet Federico García Lorca, victim at age 38 of an assassin's bullet in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, in which he fought for the Republican side. There can be little doubt that Shostakovich equated Lorca's "hundred ardent lovers" and their graves in De profundis with the cries of the countless victims of Stalin's murderous policies. The following five songs are settings of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), credited with inventing the term "surrealism" and best known in musical circles for the witty settings of his lighter verse by Francis Poulenc. But Shostakovich will have none of that: he explores the poet's deepest, darkest side, including "The Suicide," where the composer returns to the theme of the "unmarked grave," the unknown dead. The last of the Apollinaire settings, "The Zaporozhian Cossacks' Answer to the Sultan of Constantinople," the subject also of a painting by Ilya Repin known to every Russian, is a raging, white-hot condemnation of all tyrants rather than about death per se. (Apollinaire died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, whose death toll surpassed 20 million.)

The only Russian poet here - his father was a Saxon nobleman - is Wilhelm Küchelbecker (1791-1846), a participant in the abortive "Decembrist Plot" of 1825, an uprising against the tsar not by the "people" but by the aristocracy. Küchelbecker was captured and spent most of the remaining 20 years of his life at hard labor in a Siberian prison camp. His friend Anton Delvig, the subject of the most gentle - almost wistful - of the 11 songs, was likewise a Decembrist, executed for his part in the revolt. The final two poems are by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the greatest lyric poet of modern Germany: the unearthly (in Shostakovich's setting) "The Poet's Death," signifying no less than the death of art and the artist, "a tender fruit doomed to decay," and "Conclusion," whose eerie knockings bring the Symphony to a chillingly dramatic close, a final reflection on death without redemption.

The public premiere of the Fourteenth Symphony was presented in Leningrad on September 29, 1969, by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Rudolf Barshai. The work's dedicatee, Benjamin Britten, led the first performance outside Russia a few months later at his Aldeburgh Festival in England.

- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.