Shostakovich's full name in German, "Schostakowitsch" provides the key to the composer's
In English musical notation we have the letters A to G (in the treble clef, EGBDF
on the lines and FACE in the spaces) and from these a limited number of words can
be concocted. The German language is more accommodating for here we have the two
additional letters 'H' and 'S'. The note B flat is written 'B' while B natural is
'H'. E flat is called 'Es' and pronounced like the letter 'S'. For Shostakovich's
epigram, the composer took his initial 'D' and the first three letters of his surname
in a hybrid German/English spelling (see example). Of course the motif BACH is possible,
and was used by the composer himself, and by Brahms and Liszt (amongst others). Like
BACH, the DSCH motto does not belong to any key but is probably more fruitful than
its famous precursor. Shostakovich introduces his plaintive motto at its original
pitch in the third and fourth movements of the Tenth Symphony and it is omnipresent
in his Eighth Quartet. He first openly spotlighted it in 1953, though it occurs earlier
and possibly unwittingly in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District pitched a perfect fourth
higher with a 'near miss' in the Scherzo of the First Violin Concerto of 1947.
In the Seventh Quartet his initials 'DS' are introduced in the very first bar and
are featured throughout this work, with DSCH occurring in bars 5 and 6 after fig.
22 at the end of the Lento, albeit disguised in an unfamiliar rhythm. The opening
viola phrase of the Fifth Quartet is an anagram of the motto. Inexplicably, the composer
introduced a slurred parody of his epigram in the third movement of the Fifteenth
Symphony and humorously sets his name, occupation, and nationality to the motto in
the brief work Preface to the Complete Collection of my Works and a Brief Reflection
upon this Preface, Opus 123.
There is a semitone between the first and second notes and the third and fourth,
a minor third between the second and third notes, while the complete motto spans
a diminished fourth. A number of Shostakovich's compositions - the First Cello and
Second Violin Concertos, Twelfth and Thirteenth Quartets among them - do not feature
the monogram but they are saturated with its intervals.
After Shostakovich was in trouble with the authorities in 1936, his fellow composer
Benjamin Britten, composed a Festival Cantata, Opus 30, Rejoice in the Lamb. This
setting of words written in a madhouse by the eighteenth century poet, Christopher
Smart. The words which concern us are: 'For the officers of the peace are at variance
with me and the watchman strikes me with his staff. For silly fellow, silly fellow
is against me.' The Shostakovich motto is featured prominently and the chorus takes
up those four notes for the words 'silly fellow'. It is surely more than coincidental
that when Shostakovich was in disgrace in Russia with 'officers of the peace', Britten
should introduce this secret message of sympathy. Did, then, Benjamin Britten discover
and initiate the use of the DSCH motto in 1943? Later, in 1968, he was to dedicate
the church parable, The Prodigal Son, Opus 81, to Shostakovich.
(Adapted from Derek Hulme's text for the first and second editions of his Catalogue)
Hear musical examples of the DSCH Motto
The Meaning of DSCH
The composer's printed name from an envelope; motto, a valediction ('With best wishes')
and signature in his own hand, 7 Dec. 1974. Click to enlarge.