Shostakovich: Symphony No.5

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony no.5 in D minor, op.47

1: Moderato
2: Allegretto
3: Largo
4: Allegro non troppo

The singer Galina Vishnevskaya recalls a pointedly ambiguous statement made by Shostakovich in one of the many public submissions he had to make to the state during his life: “Our Party has so closely followed the growth of all musical life in our country. I have been aware of that close attention throughout my creative life.”

Shostakovich was particularly aware of that close attention in 1937. Since the attacks on his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and his ballet “The Limpid Stream” in Pravda the previous year he had found himself transformed overnight from the Soviet Union’s foremost composer to a non-person. The Great Terror that Stalin inflicted on Russia was at its height. Arrests and disappearances reached a vertiginous level. Stalin declared that 10 per cent of the population was subversive. The only way the police could make enough arrests to match this figure (which, coming from the leader himself, must be correct) was to detain people more or less at random. Like many others, Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase by the door, ready for the knock in the night signalling the arrival of the secret police to take him away. T be seen in public without a smile was to court arrest. Solzhenitsyn summed up the times: “Black Marias by night, demonstrations by day.”

Shostakovich completed his Fourth Symphony in May 1936 in the wake of these attacks. A performance was planned, but it became clear that the consequences of playing such a work could be severe for all concerned. After some strained rehearsals, Shostakovich withdrew the symphony, claiming dissatisfaction with it. The extraordinary, dissonant and dissident work would not be heard until 1961.

The only work available to him was film and theatre music. This may have worked to his advantage: Stalin was a keen film buff, and his awareness of Shostakovich prior to the Lady Macbeth controversy would have been as a film rather than a concert composer. Loyalty was next to impossible to demonstrate when the leader’s whims made citizens into enemies of the state overnight. Usefulness was another quality entirely, and Shostakovich’s film work made him look useful. This may be how he avoided the gulag: it also gave the party and Stalin an opportunity to be publicly merciful.

From the tone of the Pravda articles, Shostakovich knew that at the least he was expected to make his musical language simpler and more obviously tonal. What is remarkable about the Fifth is not, however, the compromise in style. The melodies are less angular and the harmony more straightforward than the Fourth Symphony, true, but it wilfully ignores the demands of the party in one very important respect: the Fifth is an explicitly and overwhelmingly tragic work.

Its famous and verbose subtitle, “A Soviet Artist’s Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism,” was not Shostakovich’s invention. A journalist previewing the première in January 1938 coined it. The composer happily went along with the idea: it offered a very useful shield. He gave interviews in which he made vague pronouncements that the new symphony concerned “the making of a man.” The première in January 1938 was a huge success: it received a standing ovation nearly as long as the entire symphony. A long debate ensued, during which some astonishing logical somersaults were performed by party officials in order to explain why the symphony was in fact a straightforward, optimistic piece of Soviet Realist art. A “Hamlet” theory quickly became popular, which cast Shostakovich in the role of Shakespeare’s Dane. Thus the tragic element could be explained away as a superficial precursor to Soviet enlightenment. Shostakovich was rehabilitated – although he still kept the suitcase by the door, just in case.

The first movement’s opening gesture contains the seeds of almost everything that follows. It settles into an uncertain, shell-shocked mood, into which grotesquery gradually intrudes. A parody of the kind of four-square march beloved of totalitarian regimes throughout the world breaks out, before a climactic cry of anguish. This subsides into a deadpan passage in which a horn attempts to follow a flute into the stratosphere, before disappearing into an uneasy mist.

The second movement is a clodhopping affair brimming with irony. It attempts to display some finesse in its dance, but is never very far from a banana skin.

If the first half of the symphony is characterised by irony and distance, the third movement provides the emotional heart of the symphony. It was this intense, deeply tragic music that moved its first audience to tears. The effect of such deeply and genuinely emotional music on an audience that was effectively forbidden to have genuine emotion must have been overwhelming.

The finale continues to be the subject of controversy. For many years the official explanation was accepted without question in the West: that the “Hamlet-like” tragic (and therefore individualist and superficial) themes are overcome by the profound joy and triumph of the collective Soviet will. But one only has to listen to realise that the “triumph” is imposed. Any sign of genuine emotion is trampled by bullying brass. In a brief moment of hope, an undulating motif in the harp alludes to Shostakovich’s setting of Pushkin’s Poem “Rebirth.” But the “new and brighter day” promised does not dawn. Instead a darkly menacing restatement of the movement’s opening theme builds to a witheringly ironic conclusion: A crude, banal fanfare is upstaged by its own accompaniment of a single note hammered out 251 times, as Vishnevskaya describes it, “like nails being pounded into one’s brain.”

The conductor Boris Khaikin recalled a conversation he had with Shostakovich after the symphony’s premiere. The composer remarked, “I finished the Fifth Symphony in the major and fortissimo… It would be interesting to know what would have been said if I finished it pianissimo and in the minor?”

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