The day after he finished the mammoth "Leningrad" symphony, Shostakovich turned to the composition of a completely different sort of work: an opera based on Gogol's comic play, The Gamblers. Shostakovich had read the play on the weeklong train ride from Leningrad to the distant city Kuibyshev in the early autumn of 1942 and had decided it would offer an ideal form of relaxation after the strenuous work of composing the elephantine symphony. However, Shostakovich's decision to set the text word for word proved the project's undoing. With 30 minutes of music completed in sketch form, Shostakovich realized that if he continued in this manner, the opera would take months to complete and would last more than four hours on the stage. There was no way the Soviet government would permit Shostakovich the creative indulgence of composing a four-hour-long opera on card sharks while the country was at war and every other composer was busy turning out works to inspire the Red Army and to buoy the spirits of the people. Nor, Shostakovich knew, would the subject bear its four-hour length.
Although Shostakovich played the portions of the music that he had completed for his friends who were struck by its ironic power, he put The Gamblers away and never completed more than a piano-vocal sketch of the opening scene.