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Shostakovich and Yevtushenko: The Courage of Symphony #13

by John Cobley

Sunday Jun 18th, 2017


At the beginning of the 1960s in the USSR, there was a brave challenge to the unofficial but strong anti-Semitism policy of the Soviet government. This challenge took the form of a symphony performed in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1962. The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was the initiator with a poem written after a visit to Babi Yar, where thousands of Jews were massacred by the Nazis in 1941. This poem, entitled simply “Babi Yar,” was enthusiastically read by composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who quickly started writing orchestral music to accompany the words. (He ended up using five Yevtushenko poems, with “Babi Yar” occupying the first movement.) The public performance of this 13th Symphony under the repressive atmosphere in the USSR put both poet and composer in great danger. This danger was underlined when they had trouble finding a conductor and musicians to perform the work. Official permission to perform the work was not given until the actual day of the announced premiere. Nevertheless, the performance was a triumph.


Kiev Jews being assembled for the march to Babi Yar.


 Babi Yar

The massacres at Babi Yar during World War 2 took place in a ravine near Kiev. The first massacre was carried out on 29-30 September, 1941, when 33,771 Jews were shot. The invading German army, after occupying Kiev on their advance into the USSR, suffered the bombing of their headquarters. The German Command decided to exterminate all Kiev Jews in retaliation. 

A handout was promptly circulated throughout the city: “All Jews living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity must come to the corner of  Melnikova and Dokhturovska Streets by 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday September 29th 1941. They are to bring with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. Any Jews not carrying out this instruction and who are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilian entering apartments left by the Jews and stealing property will be shot.” (holocaustresearchproject.org)

After this first massacre, 100,000 to 150,000 more were executed: Ukrainians, Jews, Romanis and Soviet POWs. All the bodies were buried in the Babi Yar ravine. Later, in July 1943 when the Germany army was retreating, the Nazis tried to remove all traces of these massacres. It took six weeks for 327 prisoners to exhume all the bodies and burn them. Of the 327 prisoners, who worked shackled, 15 escaped. The rest were shot by the SS during or after this operation.

After the war, no Jewish memorial was permitted by the Soviet authorities. Not until 1976 did the Soviets allow a monument at Babi Yar—and then only in memory of the Soviet citizens shot there. Finally in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine built a monument to the 100,000 Jews murdered there.



When Yevtushenko moved from Siberia to St. Petersburg as a young man in the 1950s, he encountered anti-Semitism for the first time. He has admitted to being “brainwashed” initially by the covert anti-Semitic Soviet policy there. It wasn’t until the early 1960s, after novelist Vassily Kuznetsov had taken him to the site of the Babi Yar massacre near Kiev, that Yevtushenko changed his views. Feeling shame over his former attitude, he wrote: “This shame became the co-author of [my poem] ‘Babi Yar.’” (BBC News, 29 Sept. 2011)The poem was an obvious critique of the Soviet attitude towards the Jews. (See a translation of the poem at the end of this article.)


The poem was written in four to five hours during the night following his Babi Yar visit. It got Yevtushenko into trouble with the Soviet authorities right away. Buoyed by the success of completing his poem, Yevtushenko had phoned a friend and read it to him. The KGB had his line tapped and the poem was immediately passed on the authorities. When he was to give his next reading, they tried to cancel it, using the excuse of a flu epidemic, but word got around about the “Babi Yar” poem and a huge crowd turned up. “I was not afraid,” he claimed almost 50 years later, “because I had already been expelled from the Literary Institute [and] from all kinds of organisations.” (BBC Interview, 29 Sept. 2011) Next, a sympathetic editor, who was subsequently fired, managed to publish the poem in the influential Literaturnaya Gazeta. Soon the poem was published in 72 languages across the world.

All this put Yevtushenko is even greater danger. “No one in the Soviet Union,” wrote Solomon Volkov, “had dared for a long time to speak so openly and publicly about domestic anti-Semitism.” (Shostakovich and Stalin, p. 273) “Every line of mine,” Yevtushenko wrote, “was examined under a magnifying glass in search of sedition.” And then “Yid” was scratched on his car with a nail.



Finding the poem in Literaturnaya Gazeta, Dmitri Shostakovich was deeply affected. Many of his circle were Jewish.  As Henny van de Groep has written, “The authorities were absolutely correct when they accused Shostakovich of being surrounded by Jews.” (DSCH #29, p.40) In fact, his new wife was half-Jewish. Shostakovich had long been an enemy of anti-Semitism. “It is an outrageous thing and we must fight it. We must shout it from the rooftops,” he once told Galina Vishnevskaya. (Shostakovich, A Life Remembered, p.359 ) Kiril Kondrashin, who was to conduct the premiere of the 13th Symphony recalled: “Jewish melodies occur in many of his works. Personally there was nothing Jewish about Shostakovich as regards nationality, culture or terms of upbringing. But I see in his Jewish motifs a manifestation of his unconscious, or perhaps even conscious, protest.” (“Talking about Shostakovich,” Shostakovich Reconsidered, p. 515.)

Such was his enthusiasm for “Babi Yar” that Shostakovich started orchestrating the poem before even contacting Yevtushenko for permission. Such was his enthusiasm that he did his composing in a hospital bed, where he was to stay for two months. Later he told Glikman, “I remember how I spent days on end working on the 13th Symphony, So caught up was I in it.” (Story of a Friendship, p. 111)

After finally obtaining permission from Yevtushenko to use “Babi Yar,” he invited the poet to visit right away as the music was already finished. Shostakovich sang the work while playing the piano. Following this he said to Yevtushenko, “I feel it’s necessary to broaden and deepen it. One of my pre-war symphonies was about our native fears, arrests. And “they” began to interpret my music, putting emphasis on Hitler’s Germany. Do you have any other poems, for example, about fears? For me this is a unique opportunity to speak my mind not only with the help of music, also with the help of your poetry. Then no one will be able to ascribe a different meaning to my music.” (DSCH Journal 15, July 2001.)

Yevtushenko gave Shostakovich a book of his poems and then went off to write a poem about fears. Working in his hospital bed, Shostakovich chose three poems from Yevtushenko’s book and incorporated the newly commissioned poem, “Fears.” He was unusually inspired to write this composition. Claiming he had nothing else to do in his hospital bed, he managed to finish the last four movements in just over a month. By July 20th his Symphony #13 was complete. “What I like about his [Yevtushenko’s] work,” Shostakovich told his friend Glickman, “is the presence of ideas and its indisputable humaneness.” (Fay, 229)


Content of Symphony #13

Although the focus of this article is on “Babi Yar” (the first movement), it’s important to note that the other four poems were all critiques of post-war Soviet life: “Humour” talks of the way that humour counters the official Soviet attitudes and cannot be bought. “In the Store” pays tribute to all Russian women, who have to line up interminably for food and endure harsh living conditions; “Fears” examines how every one in the USSR lives in fear--of a door knock or of an informer. “A Career “ acknowledges those who stand for their convictions in an alien world. But overall, “Babi Yar” dominates the 13th Symphony by its position as the first movement and by its length (over a quarter of the whole symphony).


Finding Performers

As soon as the word got round that Shostakovich was writing a symphony based on Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar,” Literaturnaya Gazeta published a substantial article arguing that the poem was biased in showing that only Jews were the victims of the massacres. The article pointed out that Russians and Ukrainians were also killed. The article also made the point that the poem made no mention of the role Russia played in defeating Nazi Germany.

This and other public attacks on “Babi Yar” made it difficult for Shostakovich to find a conductor and then a bass vocalist. Usually Yevgeny Mravinsky had the privilege of conducting Shostakovich’s premieres, but for the 13th he backed out; it is not clear whether he was wary of being associated with the controversial symphony or whether he was too involved with caring for his dying wife. The next choice, Kondrashin, accepted immediately. For a vocalist Shostakovich had Boris Gmirya in mind, and he visited him in Kiev soon after leaving hospital. The singer was worried about repercussions from singing the score and declined. Another bass, Vedernikov, also declined. Thereafter Conductor Kondrashin coached two basses through all the rehearsals, Viktor Nechipailo and Vitaliy Gromadsky. Shostakovich was “always in attendance” at these rehearsals, according to Kondrashin.


Yevtushenko Confronts Khrushchev

Political tension over the symphony was building throughout the rehearsal period. But nothing compared with a stormy meeting at the Kremlin on December 17, the day before the hoped-for premiere. This meeting was between party leaders and about 400 artists. It was here that Khrushchev made his famous attack on artists. But there was also discussion of anti-Semitism. Yevtushenko challenged Khrushchev over this issue, reciting the last two lines of his Babi Yar poem: “There is no Jewish blood in mine,/But I am adamantly hated/By all anti-Semites as if I were a Jew.” Khrushchev responded: “This poem has no place here!” Yevtushenko: ”We cannot go forward to Communism with such a heavy weight as that of Judophobia.… The progressive world is watching us and the resolution of this problem will even more greatly enhance the authority of our country.” Yevtushenko continued arguing with Khrushchev about artists, claiming that formalist artists could be straightened out over time. Khrushchev: “The grave straightens out the hump-backed.” Yevtushenko: “Nikita Sergeyevich, we have come a long way since the time when only the grave straightened out humpbacks. Really there are other ways….” (DSCH 38, p. 58)


Dress Rehearsal

The final rehearsal was scheduled on the morning of December 18, just hours before the first performance. But official permission for this final rehearsal and the premiere had still not been given on December 17. Glikman remembers waiting at Shostakovich’s home on the day of the premiere: “The general [dress] rehearsal had been suspended [by the Soviet authorities] but not cancelled. For Shostakovich the tense hours of waiting were an agony of suspense. It was painful to see his drawn face, his quivering lips and the suffering in his eyes.” (Glikman, p. 282) Late in the morning the go-ahead--a telephone call approving both the rehearsal and the public performance--came through.

There was tension too at the Moscow Conservatory, where the orchestra and the conductor were waiting for final approval. This tension was heightened by the non-show of the bass soloist, Nechipailo. Clearly the authorities had got to him because at the last minute he offered the excuse of being seconded by the Bolshoi. Fortunately the substitute bass, Gromadsky, though his presence wasn’t required for the dress rehearsal, had come out of interest and was immediately given the role for the premiere that night.

As well, Kondrashin recalls a phone call from the Minister of Culture, Georgi Popov during the dress rehearsal. “Kiril Petrovich, how is your health?” was the minister’s subtly threatening opening gambit. He then asked: “Is there anything that might prevent you conducting tonight?” Kondrashin answered in the negative. Popov then asked: “Do you have any political doubts in relation to ‘Babi Yar?’” Again Kondrashin answered negatively, as he did to the last question, “Can the symphony be performed tonight without the first [Babi Yar] movement?” (Wilson, pp. 360-1) Despite these veiled threats, Popov didn’t move to stop the premiere, though he clearly wanted to. Laurel Fay has explained why: “Tactics of repression had changed significantly since the death of Stalin; cultural bureaucrats shrewdly calculated that the consequences of banning the performance would be more damaging than of letting it proceed.” (234) So the dress rehearsal of Symphony #13 finally got under way. The concert hall was full of invited students. Also conspicuous was a large contingent of Government officials.



Glickman took Shostakovich to the premiere: “Before setting out for the concert, Shostakovich grabbed my left hand with his left hand ‘for luck’ and said, ‘If there are cat-calls after the symphony and the public spits on me, don’t try to defend me. I can stand it.’ I knew of course that no such thing would happen, but the morning war of nerves had told on us, and we left for the Conservatoire a prey to anxious thoughts.” (Glickman, p. 283)                                         

The only empty seats were in the official government box. However, some Soviet officials sat in the audience. Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny was sitting behind them: “There were a lot of them, those black beetles with their ladies in permanents.” He described how the ladies got caught up in the charged atmosphere and had to be pushed down by the officials when they rose with the standing ovation. (Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, p. 274)

Although the Soviet authorities didn’t interfere with the actual performance, they did manage to ensure that no text was available in the program. Clearly they wanted to make Yevtushenko’s words as inaccessible as possible. Furthermore, they cancelled the planned television transmission.

The emotion in the audience could not be held in check when the first movement of the Symphony, the Babi Yar section, was finished. The audience, contrary to convention, burst out with applause and “hysterical shouting.” Kondrashin was concerned that things were getting out of hand: “The atmosphere was tense enough as it was, and I waved them to calm down. We started playing the second movement at once so as not to put Shostakovich into an awkward position.” (Wilson, p. 361)

The applause at the conclusion of the symphony was just as loud and long--Yevtushenko claimed that the applause went on for half an hour. Shostakovich was called on to the stage, soon to be followed by Yevtushenko. The performance was generally considered a triumph, as was the second one two days later.



Such a momentous cultural event would normally have been fully covered in the Soviet daily newspaper Pravda. But there was only one sentence in the next day’s issue.

As Shostakovich had expected, Yevtushenko took most of the heat from the authorities because his words were more explicit than the music. The authorities demanded he make changes to show that Russians and Ukrainians were also victims at Babi Yar and that Russian bravery won the fight against Fascism. Surprisingly they did not demand changes in passages the implied that anti-Semitism was still prevalent in Soviet Russia. (Ottaway)

These demands put Yevtushenko in a difficult position because he knew that all his followers—and of course Shostakovich—would not want any changes to his words. But “to save the symphony,” as he put it, he did change two passages, each of four lines. (See details at the end) The new version was performed on February10 and 11, 1963, in Moscow. But in mid-march 1963 two performances in Minsk, with Shostakovich present, reverted to the original words. There are conflicting accounts of Shostakovich’s reaction to Yevtushenko’s changes. Of course he wasn’t happy, but he must have seen that Yevtushenko’s solution was the best available. Fay points out that the text changes were never placed in his manuscript score. (236) A text of Yevtushenko’s poem with the changes was never published.

Following the première, the symphony was rarely performed. Thus in August 1965, almost three years after the première, Shostakovich wrote to his friend Glikman, “On 20 September my 13th Symphony is to be performed, which was a pleasant surprise for me.” (Glickman, p. 123) A monophonic recording of a subsequent Moscow performance on November 20th found its way to the USA. This was issued on the Everest label.



The 13th Symphony is regarded as Shostakovich’s last confrontation with the Soviet authorities. He was aware that he had not long to live and wanted to express himself more directly than before. Thus Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” poem was just what he needed, words being more explicit than music. According to Solomon Volkov, he told Yevtushenko that he was disappointed that the anti-Stalin message in his 8th Quartet had not been understood and that the 13th Symphony now gave him “the opportunity to express myself not only through music but through your poetry as well. Then no one will be able to ascribe a completely different meaning to my music.” (S&S, 275)

While Shostakovich was inspired by Yevtushenko’s poem, Yevtushenko was equally delighted by Shostakovich’s music: “Shostakovich’s reading of my poetry was so exact in intonation and sense that it felt as if he had been inside me when I was writing the poem and he had composed the music as the lines were born.” (Yevtushenko, “Genius is Beyond Genre” quoted in Fay, p. 223) Elsewhere and much later he wrote, “The music of Shostakovich made this poem ten times stronger.” (BBC Interview, 29 September, 2011)


Symphony #13: The Babi Yar Movement

The 13th Symphony is more precisely a cantata. But Shostakovich called it a symphony because it was “united by a common idea.” (“Talking about Shostakovich,” Wilson, p. 513) It is the setting of five poems for a bass soloist and bass chorus. Most critics point to the directness and simplicity of this work.

The orchestration is somewhat unusual: standard string section (minimum 64), triple piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contra-bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass whip, tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone, 2-4 harps, piano, celesta bass solo, 40-100 bass singers.

Vocal symphonies had been written before, notably by Mahler, Vaughan Williams and Britten. David Hurwitz points to Shostakovich’s innovation in this work: “This is the first [symphony], however, to employ a single bass soloist backed by a chorus of basses, a dark and particularly Russian sound. The chorus sings for the most part entirely in unison, and there is no complex vocal counterpoint or layering of parts at all. (Shostakovich: Symphonies and Concertos, An Owner’s Manual, p. 169)

The first sound in the Babi Yar movement is a chime; it is heard 40 times in the fifteen minutes of the movement. To start, a four-note rising theme is explored by the brass and then by the woodwinds, while the strings play pizzicato. This music is appropriately sombre, and the repetitive chimes (seven in all) suggest a death knell. The chorus then introduces the experience of the poet visiting the site. The soloist opens with the poet’s identification with the Jewish people (“I’m an Israelite,” “I’m Dreyfus”) and feels the scorn they have always endured (“persecuted, spat upon, slandered”).

Next the music, dominated by the large brass section, becomes loud and agitated as both chorus and bass describe physical violence that Jews experience in society. The bass then chides Russian society for this (“O my Russian people!”). The chorus, with a single line, enforces this call to national conscience. There follows a second series of identification with Jews (Anne Frank), this time on a gentler level. An abrupt change of mood comes when the poem describes the fear of persecuted Jews (“They’re coming!”). This scenario is extended by some brilliant orchestral writing with the brass in full voice and the cymbals suggesting gunshots. Next, the orchestra becomes much quieter, setting up the chorus for a return to the site of the massacre (“Over Babi Yar the wild grass is rustling”). With the Babi Yar scene re-established, the soloist sings the poet’s final thoughts (“I myself am like a continuous soundless scream”). The chorus then returns to the nationalist theme and looks forward to the burial of the last anti-Semite on earth.  The movement ends in a climax with both chorus and soloist singing together as the poet states that he is a true Russian because he is hated by all anti-Semites for his support of the Jews.



The chorus is not used in the classical interactive fashion of Greek drama; rather it is just a second voice to the bass soloist. In other words, both the soloist and the chorus sing the poem’s lyrical lines. The chorus uses the “I” of the poet eight times (“I’m scared,” for example). On one occasion the chorus finishes the sentence of the soloist for emphasis and ironic effect. Bass: How basely, without a qualm, the anti-Semites pompously call themselves…. Chorus: “The Union of the Russian People!” The chorus also joins the soloist for the last words of the poem, giving these words a stronger impact “That’s why I’m a true Russian!”


This leads to the conclusion that Shostakovich decided to use a chorus primarily to give variation in the transmission of the words. There was surely a practical reason as well: the chorus gives the soloist breaks from singing continuously.


Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” Poem


There are nine sections to the poem:

1. Babi Yar scene description (5 lines)

2. Identification of poet with well-known Jews (6 lines)

3. Typical Persecution of Jews (11 lines)

4. Scene of violence against Jews (9 lines)

5. Lecture to anti-Semites in Russia (11 lines)

6. Innocence and vulnerability of Jews (15 lines)

7. Fear: drama of the hounded Jew (8 lines)

8. Return to Babi Yar scene (16 lines)

9. Finale: Last anti-Semite on Earth (9 lines)


The poem shows the effect on the poet from visiting Babi Yar. He tries to make readers experience his visit as if it was their own. At the start, after a brief description of the site, he confesses he is scared and can immediately identify with the Jewish race. Through the poem this identification takes in several Jewish individuals and groups: Joseph from the Old Testament and Christ from the New Testament, Dreyfus, “the lad from Byelostok,” Anne Frank, and finally every old man and every child who died at Babi Yar.


He also describes two generic ways that Jews are attacked, one by more civilized anti-Semites and one by less civilized anti-Semites. Following these two scenarios, he lectures the Russian people on their anti-Semites, “How could anti-Semites call themselves ‘The Union of the Russian People?’”


After another scenario of anti-Semitism he returns to his visit to Babi Yar for the climax of his feelings on viewing  this site. Finally he moves to the old Soviet anthem and asks for it to “thunder” when “the last anti-Semite on Earth is buried forever.” And with a last point he asserts that his identification with Jews has made him hated but has also made him a “true Russian.”


Thus deftly Yevtushenko uses the German massacre at Babi Yar to attack anti-Semitism in his own country.



There are no monuments above Babi Yar.

Just a steep precipice for a rough gravestone.

I’m scared.

                        Today I’m as old

As the Jewish people themselves.

I feel now that

                        I’m an Israelite.

Here I trudge through ancient Egypt.

And here I perish, crucified on the cross,

and I still carry scars from nails.

I feel that I’m


The philistine is

                        my informer and judge.

I’m behind bars.

                        I’m surrounded.


spat upon,


Fancy ladies in Brussels frills squeal

and poke me in the face with umbrellas.

I feel that I’m

the lad from Byelostok*.

Blood flows, spreading across the floors.

The ring-leaders of the tavern bar commit outrages,

smelling equally of onions and vodka.

I, kicked by a boot, am helpless.

In vain I plead with the thugs.

Above the laughter:

            “Beat the yids, save Russia!”

A seed merchant beats up my mother.

Oh my Russian people!

            I know that


are essentially international.

But often those whose hands were unclean

have sullied your purest name.

I know the goodness of my homeland.

How basely,

            without a qualm,

the anti-Semites pompously call themselves

“The Union of the Russian People!”

I feel that I’m

                        Anne Frank,


as small tree branch in April.

And I’m in love.

                        I’ve no need of phrases.

I do need

                        that we care for each other.

How little we can see,


We can’t have the leaves.

                                    We can’t have the sky.

But much is still allowed—

like embracing

each other tenderly in a dark room.

They’re coming here?

            Don’t be afraid—those are the sounds

Of spring itself—

                        it’s coming here.

Come to me.

                        Quick, give me your lips.

Are they breaking down the door?

                        No, it’s the ice cracking…

Over Babi Yar the wild grass is rustling.

The trees look threatening,

                        like judges.

Everything here screams silently,

                        and, removing my hat,

I feel

                        as if I’m slowly turning grey.

And I myself

                        am like a continuous soundless scream

above the thousands upon thousands buried here.

I am every old man

                        shot here.

I am every child

shot here.

Nothing in me

                        will ever forget this!

“The Internationale”

Let it thunder

when the last anti-Semite on earth

is buried forever.

In my blood is no Jewish blood.

But as a Jew I am hated with hardened spite

by all anti-Semites.

That’s why

                        I’m a true Russian!


Yevgeny Yevtushenko 


Byelostok. A town in East Poland known for its historic Jewish community. Under Russian control 1807-1919. Site of Russian pogroms.

Internationale. Soviet national anthem until 1944. Originally a socialist anthem. The lyrics were written (in French) in 1871. 


The Changes by Yevtushenko to “Babi Yar”

These changes, made after the premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony #10, satisfied the authorities, but they were never published. After a few years, performances of the symphony reverted to the original text. 


I’m an Israelite.

Here I trudge through ancient Egypt.

And here I perish, crucified on the cross,

and I still carry scars from nails. 


Here I stand as if at the fountainhead

That gives me faith in our brotherhood.

Here Russians lie, and Ukrainians

Lie together with the Jews in the same ground. 


And I myself

                        am like a continuous soundless scream,

above the thousands upon thousands buried here.

I am every old man

                        shot here.

I am every child

shot here. 


I think of Russia’s heroic deed

In blocking the way to fascism.

To the infinitesimal dewdrop

She is close to me with her very being and her fate.


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