In late September 1961, while Shostakovich was in Leningrad attending rehearsals of his new Twelfth Symphony, “The Year 1917” (dedicated to the memory of Vladimir Ilich Lenin), Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar,” a candid condemnation of anti-Semitism, was published in Literaturnaya gazeta and came to the composer’s attention. There are indications that Shostakovich began to set Yevtushenko’s poem to music on the spot, a good six months before he informed the young poet and it became public knowledge in the spring of 1962. As he later told Yevtushenko, reading this poem had ignited something akin to a spiritual renaissance in Shostakovich. What he experienced was the urgent need to press his music into the service of “conscience”:
“I think that it is worth dedicating a couple of words to conscience too. It has been forgotten. And it is essential to remember it. Conscience needs to be rehabilitated. Conscience needs to be restored in all its rights. It needs to be supplied a worthy home in human souls. When I complete the Thirteenth Symphony, I will bow low to you for helping me to “represent” the problem of conscience in music.”
Initially, Shostakovich thought that his “Babi Yar” setting might stand alone as a symphonic poem, but finding other socially relevant themes in a book of Yevtushenko’s poetry, he decided to expand his conception into a multi-movement Symphony. Yevtushenko wrote “Fears,” the last of the poems to be selected, at the composer’s express request. Each of the movements of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony touches upon issues or problems confronting Soviet society of the time; besides anti-Semitism there is the subversive role and resilience of humor, the unenviable lot of Soviet women, the burden and legacy of fear in the post-Stalin period, and, in the final movement, careerism. The Thirteenth Symphony is an unabashedly didactic, moralizing work, a work with an unambiguous point of view. The music is subservient to the text, written to make the words maximally understandable to the audience as well as to enhance the emotional impact of the message. The vocal parts are scored for bass soloist and a chorus of basses—in the score Shostakovich specifies 40-100. This huge chorus of basses sings together as one, in unison throughout, often with the function of reiterating what the soloist has just sung for emphasis.
The urgency of the impulse helps explain why the Thirteenth Symphony was so atypically important to Shostakovich. Normally tight-lipped about works-in-progress, once his idea for the Thirteenth Symphony had crystallized, he spread the news to his friends and started recruiting performers, even before the Symphony was finished. His choice of the poetry of Yevtushenko did not meet with universal approval, but Shostakovich staunchly defended it. When one after another desired performer turned him down—in the case of conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, resulting in deep feelings of betrayal and a rift in relations—he persevered to find performers who were willing. And when last-minute political machinations and behind-the-scenes intrigue threatened to derail the premiere performance on December 18, 1962 (by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, with bass Vitaly Gromadsky, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin), Shostakovich refused to be intimidated or back down. His enormous musical authority and official stature paid off. Reminiscing years later, he said he had been sure the performance would be banned. Ironically, it was Yevtushenko whose nerve failed under pressure, not Shostakovich. When—in response to an official ultimatum after the premiere—Yevtushenko supplied eight substitute lines for “Babi Yar,” ostensibly in order to “save” the Symphony, the poet’s capitulation irritated the composer and he did not inscribe the replacement lines in his score. (These substitute lines, nevertheless, affected neither the music nor the underlying message.)
After the premiere of a new work, successful or unsuccessful, Shostakovich usually put it behind him and moved on to the next work quickly. But as his principled artistic manifestation of civic conscience, the Thirteenth Symphony retained its significance to the composer. In the summer of 1963, Shostakovich celebrated the first anniversary of its completion with solemnity; he continued to do so in subsequent years. The only other creative milestone he ever commemorated was the date of the premiere of his First Symphony, the work that launched his career.