and while his later years had their ups and downs — a hero of the people one day and a nonperson facing possible liquidation the next — the end of his life was a total downer: an atheist crippled by disease, he was confronting his mortality in a totalitarian state that had the power and potentially the inclination to annihilate his posthumous memory. From before he wrote the incidental music for Hamlet in 1932 until after he wrote a film score for King Lear in 1970, Shostakovich presented himself in his music as a combination ironic hero and mad king's fool, a two-faced mask meant to hide his own acute case of bad nerves.
When Shostakovich died in 1975, the USSR still had another sixteen years to go, but its soul was already dead, and Shostakovich's symphonies are in effect its musical epitaph. The First Symphony is an ironic tragedy, the Second and Third are Bolshevik triumphs set to music, and the Fourth and Fifth are Communist tragedies. The Sixth through Ninth are the chapters of a musical Soviet Realist War and Peace, while the Tenth is King Lear set in the Kremlin, with Stalin as the mad king and the composer as his fool. The Eleventh and Twelfth are political dissidence disguised as state propaganda, the Thirteenth offers symphonic protest songs of bitterness and brutality, and the Fourteenth sends orchestral suicide notes of nihilism and despair. Finally, the Fifteenth is the sound of the ghosts of great symphonists howling in the face of the void.