Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5


To understand Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and by extension his work, one must understand the circumstances that surrounded his life. Born in Saint Petersburg to a middle class family, he was taught piano by his mother at an early age. Recognizing his immense skill, she enrolled her 13-year-old son in the Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) Conservatory. Shostakovich’s First Symphony premiered a few weeks after his graduation in 1926. It was an immediate success and soon brought the young Shostakovich international fame. 

However, Shostakovich’s rise to fame coincided with a political atmosphere that discouraged individualistic expression, promoted Socialist Realism (glorifying the working class and their struggle for emancipation against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie), and focused heavily on censorship of the arts in the Soviet Union. As stated by Vladimir Lenin after the execution of Tsar Nicholas II in 1918, “Every artist, everyone who considers himself an artist, has the right to create freely according to his ideal, independently of everything. However, we are Communists and we must not stand with folded hands and let chaos develop as it pleases. We must systematically guide this process and form its result.” 

At only 26 years of age, Shostakovich premiered his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934), based on the 1865 novella of the same title by Nikolay Leskov. The opera featured a racy plot of a tale of a woman who poisons her father-in-law, her husband is murdered by his employee who is also the woman’s lover, the two get married – only to have her new husband cheat on her soon afterward, ending with the woman and her new husband’s lover fighting, both falling off a bridge and drowning in a river. The score, set to avant-garde music, mingled tragedy, comedy, and satire. Generally well received from critical and popular acclaim, the opera was touted as the greatest Russian opera since Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (1890). The opera became so successful that two years after the premier three different productions were running in Moscow. This music, however, did not promote Socialist Realism, and was noted as such when the January 26, 1936 performance had a very influential critic among the audience - Joseph Stalin.

Within 36 hours Pravda (the state newspaper) condemned the work in an article possibly written by Stalin titled, “Muddle Instead of Music.” The article accused the opera of corrupting the Soviet spirit, “… ‘love’ is smeared all over the opera in the most vulgar manner,” and “a disharmonious and confused flood of sound … melodic tatters … a thicket of musical confusion resulting in cacophony.” However, the most dangerous charge in the article against Shostakovich was “formalism,” a catchall word for anything that even appeared not to embody the Soviet Union. The last sentence of the article contained the not-so-veiled threat, “This is a game that may end very badly.” Overnight the opera disappeared, and every publication and political organization in the country heaped personal attacks on its composer. Many of Shostakovich’s family, neighbors, and friends distanced themselves from him. Notably, three of friends did not denounce him or his music: Isaac Babel, Abram Lezhnev, and Vsevolod Meyerhold – all three were eventually shot in the head as an enemy of the state.

Stalin’s denunciation of Shostakovich occurred at the start of the Great Purge. In two years at least 1.3 million were arrested, and a documented (but likely many times more) 681,692 people were shot for ‘crimes against the state.’ The Gulag population nearly tripled in size with at least 140,000 of these prisoners (and likely many more) dying of malnutrition, exhaustion and the elements in the camps (or during transport to them). Shostakovich lived in continual fear, sleeping in the stairwell outside his apartment to spare his family the experience of his imminent arrest since it was known that the NKVD (the secret police of the Soviet Union) usually apprehended individuals at night. But as chance would have it, the NKVD never came for him. It was later discovered that the officer assigned to apprehend Shostakovich for “questioning” was himself a causality of the purge.

Based on his current circumstance, not to mention his requested refutation and apology of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich became unsure about the reception of his Fourth Symphony. During the rehearsal Shostakovich rejected his own work. It was not performed until a quarter of a century later, in 1961. Instead he premiered his Fifth Symphony on November 21, 1937 in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky. He obsequiously subtitled the work: “A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism.” As required, the work displayed lyricism, a heroic tone, and praised Socialist Realism. Later in life, Shostakovich recalled of the premier, “The atmosphere was charged, the hall was filled. As they say all the best people were there - and all the worst. It was certainly a critical situation. Which way would the official wind blow? I felt like a fish in a frying pan. I remembered the little ditty: ‘Tiny little fishy, fried little smelt, where’s your smile from yesterday, remember how you felt?’”

Two main themes span the first movement. Theme I is serious in mood and moderately paced. It starts with a leaping, vaguely sounding Slavic passage. Quiet, throbbing low strings next introduce and then accompany a thematic melody of great expressive power. Theme II is similar to the first in that both main themes of the first movement are notable for their simplicity of utterance and expressive directness. Shostakovich expresses himself with a directness that actually becomes an aesthetic quality of the piece. It is akin to a novelist possessing a 45,000-word vocabulary insisting on only utilizing a few hundred for a new work. At the climax of the movement, two-thirds of the way through, the musical discourse shifts from abstract development to cinematic specificity when the theme I is morphed into a bristling, goose-stepping, dissonantly harmonized march. This music is vulgar, satirical, and menacing. It is suggested this represents Stalin striding into a political rally flanked by his Soviet Politburo thugs. The remainder of the movement projects a sense of dazed dread.

Movement II is a waltz-like scherzo. Irony and satire are deeply woven throughout. Characteristic of a scherzo, this movement is in ABA form. Like the first, the second movement begins in the low strings. However, that is where the resemblance between the two ends as this second movement quickly turns into a rollicking, alcohol-fueled, somewhat off-balanced dance. The B section opens with a staggering, tipsy, hiccupping melody, set first to solo violin and then flute. A melody so imbalanced that it seems to be doing its best to walk upright and move in a straight line on its way to the lavatory.

Movement III is a single slow, arcing, quarter-hour melody of confessional intensity. It is the heart and soul of the symphony. Scored without brass and percussion, it is a movement dominated by its melody. It whispers, weeps, hopes, and howls with rage – Shostakovich’s own voice in the wilderness. This is music that cuts to the soul – music without artifice or irony. It was during this movement that the audience at the premier began to cry. As one observer points out, “It’s no wonder they cried. Understanding music like this is simple, particularly if half your family has been arrested and you are alone and terrified and trying to smile.” For private consumption, Shostakovich told a friend of the third movement, “Even before [World War II], in Leningrad there probably wasn’t a single family who hadn’t lost someone, a father, a brother, or if not a relative, then a close friend. Everyone had someone to cry over, but you had to cry silently, under your blanket, so that no one would see. Everyone feared everyone else, and the sorrow oppressed and suffocated us.”

Movement IV opens as a heavy two-step march. This music is calculated and deliberate. In contrast to the cartoony caricature of Stalin as the rabid politician of the first movement, the fourth presents him in a drastically altered light. It is the march of a maniacal sociopath hell-bent on control and obedience, intent on annihilating any obstacle. It culminates in a “joyous” and “glorified” presentation of communist ideals with an ensemble of triumphant brass accompanied by a chorus of 251 consecutive 8th note “A” played by the strings, pounding out to marching drums. A repetition that was so obvious to the actual meaning, Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya described the constant A notes in the finale as the Soviet party beating Shostakovich into submission as, “Nails being pounded into one’s brain!”

Shostakovich’s official statement of the work was his rehabilitation in the eyes of the Communist Party. “The theme of my Fifth Symphony is the making of a man. I saw him, with all his experience, at the center of the work, which is lyrical from beginning to end. In the finale the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and joy of living.” This was a classic case of, “Are you going to believe your ears, or are you going to believe what I tell you?” The Soviet censors were deceived by Shostakovich’s explanation of the work. He gave lip service to the Communist Party, to Stalin, and glorified Socialist Realism with a “triumphant” ending. In a society built on lies, Dmitri Shostakovich also learned to lie, and consequently remained among the living.

Cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich wrote of the premier, “The applause went on for nearly an entire hour. People were in uproar, and ran up and down through the streets of Leningrad until the small hours, embracing and congratulating each other on having been there. They had understood the message... of the Fifth Symphony: the message of sorrow, suffering, and isolation; stretched on the rack of the Inquisition, the victim still tries to smile in his pain. The shrill repetitions of the A at the end of the symphony are to me like a spear-point jabbing in the wounds of a person on the rack. The audience of the first performance could identify with that person. Anybody who thinks the finale is glorification is an idiot.”

Program Notes by Luke Smith