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Shostakovich: Changes to the Original Poems in Symphony #14

by John Cobley

Saturday Jun 1st, 2024



Dmitri Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, written more than 50 years ago, has been attracting a lot of attention in recent years. Of the many recordings since 2000, this difficult string symphony has been tackled by two leading younger maestros : Teodor Currentzis (2009) and  Klaus Mäkelä (2020).


In the later years of his life, Shostakovich could look back to many occasions when he felt his music had been misunderstood. Now nearing 70 and having to visit hospitality frequently, he wanted more than ever to communicate his political and personal feelings. To this end he was using words more often to complement his music: Symphony #13 (1962); Execution of Stepan Razin (1964); Seven Songs on poems by Alexander Blok (1967). And for his 14th Symphony he decided to use words again—the words of three modern poets from France, Spain and Germany. The importance to Shostakovich of the words in his Symphony #14 is evident in a letter he wrote just after the premiere: “The printed program included the text of the poems that I had used, so the audience was able to understand the words since the diction was occasionally not very good.” (to Isaak Glickman, 7 October, 1969) 



Shostakovich chose ten poems by Lorca, Apollinaire and Rilke, and at the last moment he added a Russian poem by Küchelbecker (1797-1846).


Federico Garcia Lorca

            De Profundis



Guillaume Apollinaire

            La lorely (The Lorelei)

            Le suicidé (The Suicide)

            Less attentives I  (On the Alert)

            Les attentives II  (Madam, Look!)

            À la Santé (At the Santé Prison)

            Réponse des Cossaques Zaporogues au Sultan de Constantinople (Zaporozhye Cossacks’ Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople) 


Wilhelm Karlovich Küchelbecker

            O Delvig, Delvig!


Rainer Maria Rilke 

            Der Tod des Dicters (Death of the Poet)

            Schlubstük (Conclusion)



For his Russian text, Shostakovich chose translations by Mikhail Kudinov (for Apollinaire), T. Silman (for Rilke) and I. Tyanova and L. Geleskula (for Lorca). However, I noticed a comment by Shostakovich that he and his wife tinkered with the translations. Mark Wigglesworth, in his fine 1999 intro to his BIS recording, writes of the “many changes that the composer made to the texts.” Wigglesworth is the only English “critic” I have found who has looked at the changes.


A letter to Isaac Glickman (19 March 1969) gives an interesting insight into what Shostakovich was up to with his tinkering. “I have just sent you the poems that I am using for the 14th Symphony, and now …I want to ask you a few questions: 1. In the first poem, am I correct in having set it like this: ‘They are covered with red sand/The roads of Andalusia’? That is to say with the accent on the penultimate, not the third, syllable. 2. In the fifth poem, can you help me with an alternative version of the fourth line from the end (‘The hour of love then sounded, and feverish neurosis’)? I find the medical overtone of ‘neurosis’ awkward; in the original the poet speaks about a kind of fever.”



Thus I set about checking how close the Russian texts were to the originals, how much they had been changed either through translation or through alterations by Shostakovich. I think it’s fair to attribute the majority of changes and cuts as coming from Shostakovich; translators of poems are unlikely to make significant changes or to cut out lines. 


To show the differences I have used several layout techniques. The main one is to show how an individual line varies significantly from the original. To show this I have put a literal English translation in italics and in a smaller font beside the individual line. 




1.  De Profundis


A hundred ardent lovers                                 “ardent” is added

Have fallen into eternal sleep

Deep under the dry earth.                               “deep” added

Red sand covered

The Andalusian roads.

Green olive-tree branches

Covered Cordoba.

Here they will place crosses                           “a hundred” omitted

So that the people will not forget them.         “the people” replaces “them”

A hundred ardent lovers                                 “ardent” is added

Have fallen into eternal sleep.


 The change to “the people” could be seen as a gesture to Soviet culture.



2.  Malaguena

                                                                                    16 short lines in Spanish

Death has entered and left the tavern.

Black horses and dark souls                                        “sinister people” in Spanish

Wander along the deep paths of the guitar.                “wander” added for syntax

There’s an odour of salt and hot blood                       “hot” replaces “female”

From the nervous swell of blossoms.                         “seaside” modifying “blossoms” deleted

And death still comes and goes                                   “and goes and comes” omitted

But still doesn’t leave the tavern.                               the death in the tavern (not syntactical in Spanish)


Shostakovich mentions omitting female blood in a letter to Glickman. 



3. The Lorelei   

                                                                                    Italics show original (translated)

To the blonde sorceress from the Rhineland              “Rhineland” for “Bacharach”/”There was a…”

Came crowds of men who were dying from love.      Who made the local men die from love

The bishop had her summoned to court

But absolved here right away because of her beauty.

“Tell me, O Lorelei, whose eyes are so beautiful,      “so beautiful” changed to “full of gems”

Who taught you this dangerous magic?”                     “what magician” for “who

“Life is a burden to me, Bishop, and my gaze is a curse.

Whoever looks at me reads his death warrant.”

“O Bishop, flames are burning in my eyes                 My eyes are not jewels but flames

So put this awful magic to the fire.”                           10

“Lorelei, your fire is all-powerful; even I                   I am burning in these flames, O lovely Lorelei

Am bewitched by you and cannot judge you.”           Let someone else condemn you; you bewitch me       

“Be silent, Bishop! Pray and believe                          Bishop, you are laughing, pray to the virgin for me

That it’s God’s will that I am destined to die.           Make me die and let God protect you

My beloved has left; he’s in a distant land,

Now nothing is dear to me, nothing is right for me.  Make me die since I love nothing

My heart is so worn out that I have to die.                My heart aches so much that it would be better to die

Even my looks move me to think about death.          If I look at myself, I have to die

My love has gone and from this day                          My heart aches so much now that he has gone

I don’t like daylight; night is in my soul.”                  20 My heart has ached so much from the day he left

And the bishop summoned three knights: “Quick,     “with their lances” omitted

Take Lorelei to a remote monastery.                          “Remote” added

Begone crazy Lor, calf-eyed Lor!

You’ll become a nun and your gaze will fade.”         You’ll be a nun dressed in black & white

The three knights take the maiden along a road.         Then all four take to the road

She says to her strict and sullen guards,                     Lorelei implores them and her eyes shone like stars

“Let me stand on that high rock

So that I can see my castle again,                                “beautiful” omitted before “castle”

So that I can see my reflection again,

Before I enter your harsh monastery.”                       30 Then I’ll enter the convent of maidens and widows

The wind tangled her curls and her gaze burned.        “Up there” omitted

In vain the guards cried   “Lorelei, stand back!”         The knights cried Lorelei, Lorelei

“There’s a boat sailing round the bend in the Rhine.

In it sits my beloved. He is calling to me.                   Omits “he sees me”

My heart is so light, the water so clear…”                 2nd part replaced with “my lover is coming”

And she falls into the Rhine from the high rock         “from the high rock” added;  “she leans over” omitted

From having seen her reflection in the smooth river,   “the beautiful Lorelei” for “her reflection”

Her Rhine-eyes, her sunlit curls.                                38 “colour of Rhine” changed to “Rhine”


Jewels in eyes avoided; more stress on dark/light contrast.



4.  The Suicide  


Three lilies, three lilies on my grave without a cross. “large” modifying “lilies” cut twice

Three lilies, whose gilt is blown away by the cold wind.  Three large lilies whose gilt the wind startles

The black sky, spilling rain, sometimes washes them.

And like stern scepters, their beauty is solemn.                     Majestic and beautiful like kings’ scepters

One of them grows from my wound. As soon as sunset flares,  Change: “when a sunray touches it”    

This sorrowful lily appears blood-stained.                The lily of fear appears bloody

Three lilies, three lilies on my grave without a cross. “large” modifying “lilies” cut twice

Three lilies, whose gilt is blown away by the cold wind.   Three large lilies whose gilt the wind startles

Another grows from my heart, which suffers so deeply        “so deeply” added

On the wormy bed; and the third pierces my mouth with its roots. 10   See below 

They grow alone on my grave, and the earth around them                     See below

Is bare. And like my life, their beauty is cursed.                                    See below

Three lilies, three lilies on my grave without a cross. “large” modifying “lilies” cut twice


French Lines 10-12:         Where the worms gnaw The other exits my mouth

                                    All three stand on my neglected grave 

                                    All alone all alone and cursed as I believe I am


Line 4: “of kings” replaced by “stern”

Line 6: First lily changed from fearful to sorrowful 



5.  On the Alert  


He will die tonight in the trenches,                             ”must” for “will”

My little soldier, whose weary eyes                          “whose eye stares idly”

Keep watch from the shelter day after day                        “at concrete battlements” to “from the shelter” 

For the Glory that he no longer wants to fly.                        where night’s Glory was hung”

Today he will die during the night,                             The one who must die this evening in the trenches

My little soldier, my lover and brother.         “that’s” omitted at start of line

And that’s why I want to become beautiful.  “since” starts this line

Let my breast burn like a bright torch                        Let my bare breasts light torches

Let my gaze singe the snow-covered fields                Let my large eyes melt the frozen pond

Let a belt of graves be wrapped round my waist       Let my hips be tombs  

I want to become beautiful in incest and death,          For since he must die, I want to become beautiful

For him who’s to be killed.                                         In incest and death, these two so beautiful gestures

Sunset lows like a cow, roses are blazing;                  Cows low all their roses at sunset

My gaze is enchanted by a blue bird.                                     The bluebird’s wing fans me gently

The hour of Love and the hour of terrible fever has struck      It’s the hour of love of feverish neurosis

Then the hour of Death has struck, and there is no way back.  It’s the hour of death and of the last oath

Today he will die, as roses die,                                   “must” for “will”

My little soldier, my lover and brother.



6. Madam, Look! 


“Madam, look!

You have lost something….”

“Oh, it’s a trifle! It’s my heart.

Quickly. Pick it up.                                                    “quickly” instead of “so”

I may give it away, or I may

Take it back again, believe me.                                    Cut line follows: It was down there in the trenches

And I’m laughing, I’m laughing, I’m laughing Line starts : “It’s here…”   An extra “I’m laughing”

Over love cut down by death.”                                   Over the beautiful loves cut down by death



7. At the Santé Prison


They stripped me naked

When they brought me to the prison

Four lines cut from French—See 1.

Struck by fate from around a corner               Added line

I am thrown into darkness.                             Added line

Farewell merry round dances

Farewell girlish laughter.                     O my years  O young girls

Twelve lines cut from French—See 2.

Here’s a sepulchral vault above me    Not in the French

Here I am dead to everyone                        Not in the French

No, I’m not the same                                       Not in the French

Not at all what I used to be:                       Not in the French

Now I’m a prisoner,                                         Not in the French

And that’s the end of hope.                Not in the French

Like a bear in some kind of pit           “chaque matin” cut

I pace back and forth.

And the sky—it’s better not to see it—        Not in the French

I’m not happy with the sky here.                            Not in the French

Like a bear in some kind of pit                       “each morning” cut

I pace back and forth.

32 lines cut from the French—See 3.

Why have you brought me this sorrow?        See 4. For the French 

Tell me, Almighty God.                                                   See 4. For the French 

O have pity. There are no tears in my eyes,    See 4. For the French 

My face is like a mask.                                                     See 4. For the French 

You see how many unhappy hearts                       See 4. For the French 

Beat under the prison roof.                             See 4. For the French

9 lines cut—See 5.    

Tear off my crown of thorns                     Not in the French

Before it digs into my brain.                       Not in the French

The day is over. The overhead lamp              See 6. for exact French 

Burns in the surrounding darkness.                         See 6. for exact French 

All is quiet. Only two of us are in the cell:       See 6. for exact French 

Myself and my mind.                                                                          See 6. for exact French 


1.         And what a sinister voice ululates

            Guillaume, what has become of you


            Lazarus entering the tomb

            Instead of exiting it as he did


2.         No, there I no longer feel


            I am number fifteen of the

            Eleventh row


            The sun filters across

            The windows

            Its rays make put clowns

            In my verses


            And dance on the paper

            I hear

            Someone who taps on the vault

            With a foot


3.         The French creates the atmosphere of the cell—sounds of water, visual aspects,   time, noises of    city, sky. The Russian cuts all this.


4.         What will become of me O God who knows my sorrow

            You Who have given it to me

            Take pity on my tearless eyes my pallor

            The noise of my enchained chair


            And all these poor hearts beating in the prison


5.         Lines on slow passing of time and on visual deprivation


6.         Daylight disappears here

            A lamp burns in the prison

            We are alone in my cell

            Beautiful clarity Dear reason          



8.  Zaporozhye Cossacks’ Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople 


You are a hundred times more criminal than Barabas             “You are a hundred times” added

*With Belzebub as a neighbour.                                             What Beelzebub are you over there?

You wallow in the foulest of sins,                                          Fed on filth and mire

Reared on sewage since childhood.                                         “since childhood” added

Know that you will celebrate your Sabbath without us.        We will not attend your Sabbaths.

Rotten cancer, garbage of Salonika,                                         Rotten fish from Salonika

Foul dream that’s impossible to recount.                                          Long necklace of dreadful sleeps

Evil-eyed rotten and noseless,                                                            Gouged from your eyes with a spade

You were born when your mother                                          lines 9-10 below

Was squirming in a spasm of diarrhea.                                   10

Evil butcher of Podolia, look                                                  “look” replaces “Lover”

You are covered with wounds, ulcers and scabs                     Of sores, ulcers and scabs

A horse’s ass, a pig’s snout.                                                                           

Let them buy you all the medicine                                         Hold on to all your riches

You need to treat your sores.                                                 To pay for your medicine


*Line cut: Horned like the wicked angels


Lines 9-10: Your mother made a messy fart 

                 And you were born from her flatulence



9.  O Delvig, Delvig!  


O Delvig, Delvig! What’s the reward

For great deeds and for poetry?

For the gifted, where’s the recompense

Among scoundrels and fools?


In Juvenal’s rigorous hand

A dread whip menaced scoundrels,

Chases the colour from their cheeks,

And the power of tyrants trembled. 

O Delvig! What about persecution?

Immortality is destiny                                                10

For audacious, inspired deeds

And sweet poetry!

So our bond will not die.

We are free, joyful and proud,

Grounded in happiness and sorrow,

The bond of eternal lovers of the muses!


Lines 1-4: Lines 1-4 in Kuchelbecker

Lines 5-8: Lines 139-142 in Kuchelbecker

Lines 9-16: Lines 191-198 in Kuchelbecker



10.  Death of the Poet 


The poet was dead. His face, keeping                        There he lay. His face resting

All its pallor that rejected something,             on the inclined pillow was pale and defiant

Once knew everything about the world,         since the world and this, of it, know-it-all,

But this knowledge had waned                       devoid of his senses

And returned to mundane indifference.          redounded upon the indifferent year.


How could they understand how long this path is?    Those who saw him living did not know

O, the world and him—everything was as one:          how much he was one with all this,

Lakes and ravines and plains                                      for these valleys, these meadows,

Formed the essence of his face.                                  and this water were his face.


His face was this expanse                               Oh, his face was this entire vastness

That reaches out to him and clings in vain,     that even now wants to move towards him, to court him,

Exposed fully to view--                                  and his mask that now anxiously expires

A tender fruit doomed to rot.                         is tender and open like the inner core


                                                                                                            of a fruit that rots in the air.


Translation from the German is by Salvador Pils.


Stanza 1: The Russian starts with explicit  “dead” and adds “the poet.” The Russian changes “senses” to “knowledge.”

Stanza 2: Both versions cover how the poet could not be properly understood, but the Russian adds the idea of a long path.

Stanza 3: The Russian omits Rilke’s third line.



11.  Conclusion                                          


Death is all-powerful.

It is on guard                                                   We are his.

Even in the hour of happiness.                    Laughing mouth.

At the pinnacle of life it watches us,           If we mean ourselves in the middle of life

Lives and thirsts--                                                   He dares to weep


And weeps within us.                                            Inside us.                                                              

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