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Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar

Setting words of Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 is founded on the title poem, “Babi Yar,” a denunciation of Russian anti-Semitism.

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. The Symphony No. 13, setting poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, was written in 1962 and was performed for the first time on December 18, 1962, in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Kirill Kondrashin, with the basses of the Russian A Cappella Choir, the men’s chorus of the Gnesin Musical-Pedagogical Institute, and bass soloist Vitaly Gromadsky.

The score of the symphony calls for bass soloist and bass chorus, 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, bells, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, castanets, whip, woodblocks, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum), piano, celesta, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration is about 60 minutes.

One of the most disturbing, profound, and original of the prolific Dmitri Shostakovich’s many works for orchestra and voice, the Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar, commemorates and mourns a heinous act of mass murder. Between 1941 and 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Soviet Ukraine, it is estimated that more than 100,000 people, most of them Jews, were shot by Nazi soldiers, with the help of members of the local population, in a ravine on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv known as “Babi yar” in Russian and “Babyn yar” in Ukrainian. On the two days of September 29 and 30, 1941, about 34,000 Jews were slaughtered. Ever since the horrible facts of the massacre became known, the name of the ravine has become synonymous with anti-Semitism and racism of all kinds.

Shostakovich was inspired to write a musical tribute to the victims after reading a poem written by the rising young Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1913-2017). When the poem, entitled “Babi Yar,” appeared in an issue of the prestigious Russian newspaper Literary Gazette in late 1961, Yevtushenko was not yet thirty, but already famous and controversial. Photogenic and charismatic, Yevtushenko had come of artistic age during The Thaw, an exciting, turbulent, but short-lived period of cultural and political liberalization that followed the death of dictator Josef Stalin in 1953. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Yevtushenko was a prominent spokesman for a new, more idealistic generation eager to end Russia’s long tradition of isolation, secrecy, and censorship.

In “Babi Yar,” a poem of only ninety-two lines, Yevtushenko transforms a visit he made to the site—which lacked even a monument at the time—into an eloquent and emotional denunciation of anti-Semitism in Russia and elsewhere. Adopting his favored first-person viewpoint, the poet compares himself to the victims of Babi Yar and to other Jewish martyrs, including Alfred Dreyfus and Anne Frank. “I am as old today / As all the Jewish people. Now I seem to be a Jew.” But what most surprised Yevtushenko’s readers was the poem’s accusation that Russians, and even citizens of the theoretically socialist, anti-racist, and egalitarian USSR, were themselves guilty to some degree of the virulent anti-Semitism practiced by the Nazis.

Oh you my dear Russian people!
You are I know an international people to the core.
But too often those with dirty hands
Have noisily besmirched your virtuous name.

While most Russian intellectuals knew all too well of the long and ugly history of anti-Semitism in the Russian and Soviet empires, few had ever dared to address this explosive topic in print.

As soon as he read Yevtushenko’s poem, Shostakovich decided to set it to music. Although the composer, like the poet, was not himself Jewish, he had long sympathized with the difficult situation of Jews in Russia. He had experienced first-hand the intense anti-Semitism of the Soviet regime, especially during the Stalin years, when some of his closest friends were the victims of violent persecution and arrest because of their Jewish identity. In early 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, renowned star of the Soviet Yiddish theater, the country’s leading Jewish cultural figure, and the father-in-law of Shostakovich’s close friend, the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, was murdered on Stalin’s orders in what was made to look like a traffic accident.

That same year, Shostakovich set several Jewish folk poems to music in the moving cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, but he judged the material so politically sensitive that the premiere was given only in 1955, after Stalin’s death. Other compositions that incorporate reference to Jewish music and themes are the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the String Quartet No. 4, both composed in the late 1940s and also withheld from performance until after Stalin’s death. For Shostakovich, Jews became a potent symbol of his own status as an artist/outsider trying to remain true to himself while living in an intolerant and repressive society.

At first, Shostakovich intended to set only Babi Yar” to music. In late April 1962, he completed a “symphonic poem” for bass solo, bass choir, and orchestra based on the poem. But so pleased was Shostakovich with the result, and so passionate about the project, that he eventually decided to expand the work to a five-movement symphony, each movement based on a Yevtushenko poem. In a letter to his close friend Isaak Glikman, a professor at Leningrad Conservatory, Shostakovich wrote, “What draws me to [Yevtushenko’s] poetry is its thoughtfulness and its undeniable humanity. All the talk about how he is ‘hip,’ ‘a boudoir poet,’ is caused mainly by envy. He is considerably more talented than many of his colleagues who occupy respectable positions.”

Four of the Yevtushenko poems (“Babi Yar,” “Humor,” “At the Store,” and “A Career”) had already been published. For the fourth movement, Yevtushenko agreed to Shostakovich’s request for a new poem, and produced “Fears.” Although “Babi Yar” is the only one of the poems to address anti-Semitism, the others deal pointedly with other failings of the Soviet system and with totalitarianism in general: its inability to tolerate criticism (“Humor”), the burdens borne by women in an economy of perpetual shortages (“At the Store”), the legacy of Stalinist terror (“Fears”), and the hypocrisy of bureaucrats (“A Career”).

As he recalled in a 1992 interview, Yevtushenko was flattered and surprised by the attention of the most famous Soviet composer, then at the height of his fame and influence. “We were not acquainted at the time. He telephoned me and asked, as he put it, for my ‘kind permission’ to write music to ‘Babi Yar.’ I was stunned by his call, and answered, ‘But of course, please.’ He replied joyfully, ‘Wonderful. The music is already written. Come and hear it.’”

Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony does not employ conventional symphonic form. Indeed, whether the work can really be called a symphony at all is an issue that critics and musicologists have long debated, especially since it makes no use of sonata form in any of its five movements. As Russian musicologist Marina Sabinina has shown in her excellent book on Shostakovich’s symphonies, rondo form dominates most of the musical structure. This highly dramatic—even cinematic—piece is closer in form to an oratorio or cantata and demonstrates the composer’s long experience with writing for voices and for the stage and film. Perhaps surprisingly, Shostakovich does not make use of a unifying melodic motif linking the sections. The use of exclusively male voices (both solo and choral) in a primarily declamatory-recitative style links the Thirteenth Symphony to the traditions of Russian folk, liturgical, and operatic music, and especially to the example of Shostakovich’s personal hero Modest Mussorgsky in such works as Songs and Dances of Death and Boris Godunov. The result is a musical and emotional texture of terrifying darkness, depth, realism, and intensity.

Massive and imposing, heavy with foreboding and grief, the opening measures sound like a cold wind rattling through a graveyard, immediately plunging us into a world of terrible suffering and injustice. The frequent use of tolling bells (heard in the first and last measures) creates a nearly religious, requiem-like atmosphere. And yet there are numerous light-hearted, sarcastic moments, especially in “Humor” and “A Career,” which recall the heavily ironic “laughter-through-tears” style of the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. As is also the case in many of Shostakovich’s later string quartets, the Symphony ends softly and lyrically, in an ethereal spirit of repentance and forgiveness.

The widely publicized premiere of the Thirteenth Symphony in Moscow on December 18, 1962, was a seminal event in the history of Soviet culture. During the months preceding the premiere, Yevtushenko was subjected to harsh official criticism; even Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced “Babi Yar” for its anti-Soviet sentiments. Shostakovich was summoned to a meeting by Party officials unhappy with the dangerously critical tone of the texts and urged to call off the upcoming performance. But this time, the sometimes malleable composer refused to give in, and Khrushchev allowed the premiere to go ahead, largely because he feared criticism from abroad, since many foreign correspondents and diplomats would be in attendance. “If after the performance of the Symphony the audience hoots and spits at me, don’t try to defend me. I will endure it all,” Shostakovich said to Isaak Glikman beforehand.

Kirill Kondrashin, who conducted, later called the premiere “a triumph that almost caused a political demonstration. At the end of the first movement the audience started to applaud and shout hysterically. The atmosphere was tense enough as it was, and I waved at them to calm down. We started playing the second movement at once, so as not to put Shostakovich into an awkward position.” Although there was a long and thunderous standing ovation in the hall at the end of the performance, the Moscow press didn’t print a single word about the premiere, having been ordered to remain silent by the regime.

Nor did the controversy end there. Several weeks after the premiere, Yevtushenko finally yielded to intense official pressure by publishing an altered version of the text of “Babi Yar”—apparently without consulting with Shostakovich first. The new version softened the more pointed original focus on the victims of anti-Semitism by adding 40 new lines. The revised version replaces the poet’s identification with murdered old men and children with conventional Soviet patriotism and pride in the victory over fascism. Because it appeared certain that further performances and publication of the Symphony No. 13 would be forbidden unless corresponding changes were made to the text of the vocal parts, in the score Shostakovich reluctantly replaced eight lines of the original version of “Babi Yar” with eight from the revised one. The most significant change came at the beginning of the text. The original lines, sung by the bass soloist (“Here I perish crucified, on the cross, / and to this day I bear the scars of nails”) were replaced with “Here Russians and Ukrainians lie / Together in the same earth.”

This version was performed on February 10 and 11, 1963, and was published by Muzyka State Publishers in 1984 in volume nine of the official Soviet Collected Works of Shostakovich, although current publishing, recording, and performance practice restores the original lines.

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Professor Emeritus of History at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He is a frequent annotator and lecturer for the Boston Symphony, Lincoln Center, Metropolitan Opera Guild, and Aspen Music Festival.

The American premiere of the Symphony No. 13 was given by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra with bass soloist Tom Krause.

The first Boston Symphony performance of the Symphony No. 13 was at Tanglewood on August 7, 1982, with André Previn conducting, bass soloist Aage Haugland, and the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.