The Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141 by Dmitri Shostakovich was his last. He completed it in the summer of 1971 while receiving medical treatment in the town of Kurgan, then later at his dacha in Repino. It was his first purely instrumental and non-programmatic symphony since the Tenth.
Shostakovich had already produced a sketch outline of the Fifteenth Symphony with spare notation and much use of shorthand by no later than April 2, 1971. The manuscript also includes sketches for a still unpublished setting of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Yelabuga Nail," a poem about the suicide of Marina Tsvetayeva. That June, Shostakovich traveled with his wife to the clinic of Gavriil Ilizarov in Kurgan to continue treatment for his poliomyelitis, which he had been receiving since 1968. While there he began to pen the final draft of the Fifteenth Symphony, continuing work after leaving the clinic and traveling to his summer dacha in Repino. On July 13, he was visited there by his friend Isaak Glikman, to whom the composer declared that he had completed the first two movements and was working on the third. Shostakovich completed the symphony on July 29. Shortly thereafter he informed his son Maxim of the news, entrusting to him the responsibility of conducting the world premiere.
Shostakovich later recalled to Sofia Khentova that work on the symphony did not "allow [him] a moment's rest":
However, his friend and former pupil Veniamin Basner recalled that the composer complained to him that work on the finale progressed too slowly.
The completed score of the symphony was sent to copyists at the Union of Soviet Composers by September 9 in preparation for its world premiere, which had been announced for autumn 1971. A few days later, Shostakovich suffered his second heart attack, which required the postponement of the Fifteenth's first performance. He was in the hospital until November 28, whereupon he was released to continue recovery at a sanatorium in Barvikha. Despite continued weakness in Shostakovich's arms and legs, his health had recovered sufficiently to allow him to attend the rehearsals for the rescheduled premiere. It eventually took place at the Large Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on January 8, 1972, performed by the All-Union Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maxim Shostakovich.
The symphony consists of four movements, the middle two played without interruption:
Its use of an extended percussion section aside, the symphony is scored for forces smaller than those employed for his First. The first movement begins with two chimes on the glockenspiel, followed by a five-note motif on solo flute, accompanied by pizzicato strings. This leads into a galloping motif for trumpet constructed out of all twelve notes of the Western chromatic scale. Hugh Ottaway observed that Shostakovich's use of such motifs in this symphony create an "enlarged tonal field in which 'chromatic' and 'diatonic' cease to be meaningful distinctions." Recurring throughout the movement are quotations from Gioacchino Rossini's overture to his opera William Tell. A brass chorale opens the second movement, which gives way to a cello solo. These themes alternate with a dotted funereal motif introduced by a pair of solo flutes, then taken up by a solo trombone, which builds up to a fortississimo climax. A muted string restatement of the opening chorale fades away on a timpani roll, after which bassoons announce the start of the scherzando third movement. The finale contains several quotations, starting with the "fate motif" from Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, then the opening motif from his Tristan und Isolde, before segueing into a reminiscence of Mikhail Glinka's "Do Not Tempt Me Needlessly." A passacaglia theme which has drawn commentary for its resemblance to the march from Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony builds to another powerful climax. The symphony ends with the celesta restating the symphony's opening motif, followed by an open A-major chord sustained over a percussion part that recalls the scherzo of his Fourth Symphony, which is finally resolved by a three-octave C-sharp.
Upon hearing its first performance, Shostakovich remarked that he had composed a "wicked symphony." It was received with an ovation by the audience at its premiere; among its admirers was his friend Marietta Shaginyan, who after the first performance made the sign of the cross over him and exclaimed: "You must not say, Dmitri Dmitrievich, that you are not well. You are well, because you have made us happy!" Tikhon Khrennikov praised the symphony as one of Shostakovich's "most profound," adding that it was "full of optimism [and] belief in man's inexhaustible strength." The first movement drew especial praise from Norman Kay in England, who called it a "tour-de-force of concentration, self-dissolution, and musical economy." Eric Roseberry noted that the symphony's instrumental timbres and use of passacaglia suggested that Shostakovich had been influenced by the late operas of his friend, Benjamin Britten. Yevgeny Mravinsky, who led the symphony's Leningrad premiere, found himself "overwhelmed" during his study of the score, telling his wife he would continue to return to this "autobiographical" symphony until the "end of his days."
Shostakovich's use of quotations and allusions to various works by himself and other composers has attracted speculation since its premiere. He initially described the first movement as "childhood, just a toyshop under a cloudless sky," but later warned listeners against taking "this definition too precisely." The composer personally denied knowing why he made extended use of musical quotation, although he also said that he "could not, could not, not include them." He reported to Glikman and Krzysztof Meyer that he made use of "exact quotations" from Beethoven, as well as Rossini and Wagner, and that he had been under the influence of Mahler's music while he composed the symphony. According to Maxim Shostakovich, he had been urged by his father not to reveal to the orchestra at the first rehearsal that there would be a quotation from Rossini in the first movement: "I want to see their faces when they come to it."
Maxim Shostakovich expressed the opinion that to him the symphony reflected "the great philosophical problems of a man's life cycle." Later he likened the work to a "chamber symphony" which described human life through the "prison of existence." Another conductor, Kurt Sanderling, who had debuted the symphony in East Germany, heard the music as being about loneliness and death, and that no other work by Shostakovich seemed to him so "radically horrible and cruel." Alfred Schnittke, whose own music was deeply influenced by Shostakovich, held that the Fifteenth was a "crossroads in time" where "the past enters into new relationships with the present, and, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, intrudes into the reality of the music and actually forms it." To Alexander Ivashkin, Shostakovich's then unusual use of quotation signaled an awareness of the impossibility of composing a "pure" symphony, with the quotations creating a web of their own correspondences atop the "traditional skeleton of the symphony."
Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony has also exerted influence beyond music. Director David Lynch cited it as an important influence on his 1986 film Blue Velvet: "I wrote the script to Shostakovich: No. 15 in A major. I just kept playing the same part of it, over and over again". During its filming, Lynch placed speakers on set and played the symphony in order to convey the mood he wanted. He later requested that Angelo Badalamenti compose a score for the film that was "like Shostakovich."
I myself have said that the first movement is a bit like something taking place in a toyshop. But it would be wrong to take this definition too precisely.
And here I have in mind not the unbroken thread of continuity linking all his works, but the reprises, the self-quotations, the returns to the thematic imagery and material of his earlier works which are so characteristic of the composer, and how he rethinks them and develops them in a new way. String Quartets Nos. 8 and 14, and Symphony No. 15, are, in their way, the most distinctive crossroads in time, where the past enters into new relationships with the present, and, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, intrudes into the reality of the music and actually forms it.