In a public statement, Dmitri Shostakovich reportedly gave the Fifth Symphony the obsequious subtitle, “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.”
These are the words of a composer held hostage, both artistically and literally. The year was 1937, and the Fifth Symphony represented Shostakovich’s attempt to placate Stalin and his cultural censors. A year earlier, the composer’s racy and subversive opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was attacked as “muddle instead of music” in an editorial, probably written by Stalin himself, in the Communist Party newspaper, Pravda. If Shostakovich did not turn away from the “decadent” avant-garde in favor of Soviet Realism, threatened the editorial, “things could end very badly.” The popular opera disappeared from the stage overnight. One of the Soviet Union’s most prominent composers was in danger of becoming a “nonperson” just as he was reaching his artistic prime.
In the cult of Soviet society, fear was Stalin’s main method of control. As Mark Wigglesworth writes, “Mistrust was created by persuading as many people as possible to denounce their fellow citizens as enemies of the state. Denouncing in fact became one of the main ways to survive. Children even denounced their parents.” Shostakovich had lost three close family members to the gulag. To spare his family the trauma of impending arrest, he slept in the stairwell outside his apartment for a time. Amid this terror, Shostakovich shelved the experimental Fourth Symphony on which he was working (it would not be heard until 1961) and turned to music which would fulfill the State’s populist and “heroic” dictates. It was the first move in a cat and mouse game that allowed Shostakovich to survive under intense oppression.
Shostakovich outlined a “program” for the Fifth Symphony that was sure to conform to totalitarian dictates. From our perspective, it reads like a tense hostage letter:
The theme of my Fifth Symphony is the making of a man. I saw a man with all his experiences in the center of the composition, which is lyrical in form from beginning to end. In the finale the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and joy of living.
Miraculously, the music transcends all of this. Written quickly between April and July of 1937, it embraces the pure, abstract majesty of symphonic form. Set in the traditional four movements, it delivers the kind of dramatic symphonic “journey” (from D minor to D major) which recalls Beethoven’s Fifth and many of Mahler’s symphonies. The premiere in Leningrad on November 21, 1937 inspired an ovation that lasted over an hour. Members of the audience reportedly wept during the Largo third movement. Without any words, everyone seemed to sense what was being “said.” Perhaps against all odds, the mysterious power of music transcends political oppression to deliver the ultimate unspoken freedom.
The first movement springs to life with a ferocious canon between the low and high strings. After grabbing our attention, these wildly leaping initial musical lines subside, drifting off into three repeated A’s that land like solemn drumbeats (short, short, long). These repeated “drumbeats” are a persistent, haunting presence throughout the first movement. We hear them as a defiant shriek of anguish (4:46), a numb, underlying rhythmic motor under the second theme (5:15), and as a terrifying, titanic force at the end of the development section (13:42). The exposition is filled with quiet, icy terror, gloom, and deep lament. At moments, the woodwinds suggest the long, bleak shadows of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. The second theme contains a strange, shadowy allusion to the Habanera from Bizet’s 1875 opera, Carmen. (Listen to the top vocal line in this passage from Bizet’s famous aria).
The development section emerges as an extended, continuously intensifying crescendo. It begins with the horns and trumpets delivering sardonic, anti-heroic statements in their lowest registers. Amid shrieking woodwinds and swirling scales in the strings, the music gives us a sense of the gradually quickening pulse of rising emotions. A stern military march opens the door to the movement’s climax in which the second theme, emerging in the brass, takes on the terrifying power of a cosmic pipe organ. When the music can go no further, it falls back into the exhaustion of the recapitulation. Suddenly, in a brief moment of sunshine, the second theme returns as a beautiful and intimate duet between the flute and horn. The final bars bring a hushed, ghostly sense of mystery, with the lamenting voice of the solo violin, distant trumpet calls, and sinister rising scales in the celesta.
The second movement is a perverse, lumbering waltz. It’s filled with the same grotesque comedy we hear in many of Mahler’s most sardonic scherzos. Specifically, this wandering violin figure may remind you of a similar passage in Mahler’s Second Symphony. We catch a glimpse of fleeting ghosts from the third movement of Beethoven’s Fifth with tiptoeing pizzicati and bassoons. Some commentators have cited parallels between this bitter waltz and the comic parody music of Shostakovich’s earlier film scores.
The string section becomes a virtual Russian choir in the third movement, with the violins divided into three parts and the violas, cellos, and basses in two. It’s a requiem without words—a prayer filled with quiet anguish and lament. The pastoral voice of the oboe emerges over hushed, shimmering violin tremolo as time seems to be suspended, momentarily. The final chord offers celestial reassurance.
The final movement arrives as a rude interruption, with the pounding drums of war initiating a crude and soulless march. The first five ascending notes of the theme seem to have developed from Shostakovich’s song, Vozrozhdenije, Op. 46, No. 1, a setting of these lines by Alexander Pushkin: “And the waverings pass away/From my tormented soul/As a new and brighter day/Brings visions of pure gold.” Later in the movement, another motivic thread from the song emerges in wandering lines in the violins and culminates with an all-too-brief moment of celestial sunshine in the harp (7:10). Throughout this final movement, we hear echoes of Russian folk dances. A boisterous climax, punctuated by a cymbal crash and trumpet fireworks (3:00), unleashes the over-the-top sense of “celebration” we hear in Shostakovich’s Festive Overture.
At first glance, the coda seems to bring the symphony to a joyful and celebratory close, especially when performed quickly as Leonard Bernstein did in his recording with the New York Philharmonic. Yet, Shostakovich’s instructions in the score suggest something different. At a slower tempo, these final bars take on the hollow quality of “forced celebration.” It’s the same kind of empty pomp we experience in the famous Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s opera, Boris Godunov. In this 1973 live recording featuring the Leningrad Philharmonic and Yevgeny Mravinsky (who conducted the Symphony’s premiere) listen to the brass’ halting attempts at joyful celebration amid mechanical, repeated octaves in the strings. Solomon Volkov’s controversial 1979 book, Testimony, billed as the memoirs of Shostakovich and now largely disputed, does contain an interesting interpretation of the Fifth Symphony’s final moments:
The rejoicing [in the Fifth Symphony] is forced, created under threat… It is as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing…
I. Moderato – Allegro non troppo:
IV. Allegro non troppo: