Following its premiere there was widespread speculation—from an ‘official’ review by Alexei Tolstoy to Shostakovich’s son Maxim’s remarks many years later—about just what Shostakovich was saying. Reading how others interpreted the music may help you decide what you think this controversial symphony means.
Despite differing opinions, every one agrees that Shostakovich’s dramatic opening is powerfully symbolic.
“The symphony describes the formation of a personality ... In the first movement the composer-hero suffers a psychological crisis.”
—Alexei Tolstoy, Writer and Deputy to the USSR Supreme Soviet in Izvestiya, December 28, 1937
“The beginning of the piece tells of man with all his sufferings.”
—in the article, “My Creative Answer,” presumably by Shostakovich, in the Literaturenaya gazeta, January 12, 1938
“Stormy introduction. Intense. Not fast. ‘Listen to me! I am going to speak now!’”
—Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s son