Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) wrote 15 symphonies. His valedictory effort in the genre was composed in 1971 and premiered the following year under the baton of his son Maxim. The interval was filled with illness. The composer died of a combination of heart disease and lung cancer, brought on by lifelong heavy smoking, three years after the symphony’s first performance.

The work is the most enigmatic of his symphonies, or of any other for that matter. Like much of his previous works it is filled with musical quotations. It starts with a solo glockenspiel. I can’t think of any other symphony that so starts. Shortly thereafter a distorted rendition of the famous gallop from the William Tell overture appears. It recurs several times in the first movement. The Rossini quotation in this context takes on an erie shape.

As the work unfolds there are references to Beethoven, Strauss, Mahler, Rachmaninov, and Shostakovich himself. In the third movement the invasion theme from his 7th Symphony appears followed by chilling notes from a wooden block. A celesta accompanies a solo double bass. A macabre clarinet solo introduces a chilling dance like section that leads to a violin solo; the funeral jaunt ends on a note of desolation.

The long final movement begins with the “fate motif” from Wagner’s Ring followed by the opening notes of Tristan und Isolde. The “fate motif” returns several times in this movement.

What to make of all these quotations? They’re a lot, even for a composer who made extensive use of quotations throughout his career. As is typical for Shostakovich the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No matter the musical source, the symphony sounds like Shostakovich and no one else. In a letter to a friend about these quotes he wrote:

I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them.

Make what you will of the triple negative, but the work gains cohesion by the use of the quotations. The listener doesn’t have to be aware of the source of many of the symphony’s notes to be moved its statement of our inevitable end made harder by our knowledge of it.

The symphony has a quiet finish with the celesta playing a role that recalls the ending to the composer’s 4th Symphony. The music seems to dissolve into nothingness as inevitably does the universe itself. This work will never have the popularity of some of Shostakovich’s other symphonies, but as the listener becomes familiar with the composer’s style and musical progression he will be increasingly drawn to it. It is a somber masterpiece that conveys more meaning with each hearing. A fitting end to the great series of symphonies by the genre’s last great master.

Below is a complete performance of the work by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the leadership of Bernard Haitink.