Dmitri Shostakovich – 5th Symphony

Симфония 5

Symphony NO. 5

Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович, 1937

Written by Dimitri Shostakovich, 1937


Shostakovich was a Soviet Composer who had to deal with the fears of exile, imprisonment and death that this brought daily. Under Stalin’s regime, the arts were greatly restricted and all artists had to conform to Socialist Realism – which can best be described as creating what Stalin wanted to hear or see at any given time. Shostakovich was subject to, and had to deliver, denunciations of fellow composers daily.

The Soviet Regime denounced all pre-revolutionary composers, that is before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 when Russia became a communist nation, with the exception of Beethoven and demanded its composers learn about the politics of the Bolsheviks as an equally as important, if not more so, subject as their music. Solo musicians were banned and instead ‘mass music’ was to be produced – this being music which is simple enough to be remembered and sung in fields and factories to raise morale of the workers.

Western concepts in music were forbidden and seen as anti-socialist. Composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev migrated to the West and so were able to experiment more in their music. At the same time, there are composers like that of the second Viennese school experimenting with atonality.

These severe restrictions placed on Soviet composers to write formulaic music meant they lived in constant fear. Shostakovich’s feelings towards the Soviet Regime are perhaps the most controversial since he was such a prominent composer who battled his entire career with being immensely popular and then denunciated several times.

Work: Symphony No. 5 (1937)

Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

1.   Bibliographic information relating to Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Volkov,S. (1979) Testimony – The Memoirs of Shostakovich. UK: Hamish Hamilton Ltd.

The authenticity of this book is greatly disputed between musicologists and some feel that it is no more than Volkov’s own fabrication[1]. Regardless, one cannot study Shostakovich without at least taking note of the content.

The book is written in the first person of Shostakovich and, when reading it, I can’t help noticing the unique style; that of an older man rambling. This, however, is to be expected – Shostakovich lived through some of the toughest times in the last century and he hadn’t ever been permitted to share his experiences – even in the privacy of his own home. The Soviet Regime told people what to think and what to believe and his public image would have been determined by the soviet leaders. Shostakovich, like most soviet composers, was no more than a propaganda pawn.

His son, Maxim Shostakovich, has said of Testimony that it was a book written “about my father, not by him”[2]. But has also stated to Ho and Feofanov in 1991 that “I am a supporter both of Testimony and of Volkov” And has since publically given full support to Testimony.

This Shostakovich which the book portrayed was not the “faithful son of the Communist party” that his official obituary stated, but rather a very bitter and resentful man who had lived a very submissive life – and hated the Soviet way of life.

This helps shed light on the character of Shostakovich and to study his 5th symphony with this character in mind makes it apparent that there are subtleties which scream out at the Soviet way of life.

  • MacDonald, I. (1990) The New Shostakovich, 2006 reprint. UK: Fourth Estate.

Ian Macdonald, a firm believer in Testimony, examines Shostakovich’s life and how this could affect his outlook on Soviet Russia. MacDonald believes Shostakovich was never a loyal supporter, if at all, in the Soviet society in which he lived. He does however mention, on the topic of the vast denunciations and propaganda articles attributed to Shostakovich (and most composers of the time), that even if he wasn’t ‘personally committed to the Soviet System… he had effectively sold out to the society’.

MacDonald in his introduction weighs up the evidence supporting and discrediting Testimony to try give an indication as to why this is his stance on Shostakovich’s life.

Shostakovich, in MacDonald’s view, was considered to have the role of yurodivy – that of a court jester (with Stalin as the tsar to fill the same analogy). In Russian history, the yuridovy character can get away with, to an extent, poking at social injustices. He could entice audiences to find deeper meanings in their art, although the art itself may be more light-hearted and foolish, like a court jester.

For example, in the 5th Symphony – The second movement is a satirical Scherzo, which Macdonald describes as having a ‘beer festival spirit’ and says it ‘shows us all is as normal in this smilingly hollow world’. Michael Tilson Thomas explains the different characters, such as the Red Army, foolishly trying to dance in this movement in his documentary on the work.

The following movement, the largo, is a requiem for everyone who has suffered to the Soviet era and, on the premiere of the symphony, many of the audience were bought to tears. Shostakovich, arguably, couldn’t have pulled off this movement without the second and fourth (the finale). It is here where he inherits the yuridovy character – not many composers would be allowed to compose such a piece that resonates with the people’s sorrow so deeply.

MacDonald summarises, brilliantly, that:

 “Understanding music like this is simple – particularly if half your family have been arrested and you are alone, terrified and trying to smile.”

  • Fanning, D. (1995) Shostakovich Studies UK: Cambridge University Press.

Fanning’s studies of Shostakovich show that he isn’t convinced by the dissident view portrayed of him in Testimony or by MacDonald in The New Shostakovich.

The second chapter is an interpretation of the 5th Symphony with studies on several sources including that of Alexei Tolstoy who gave the official review of the performance after its premier. Fanning concludes that, although the piece may have some reflection to Soviet Society, it may just as well be an autobiographical composition where the darker parts may relate to Shostakovich’s life at the time of writing it – as it was after his condemnations in Pravda which he wrote it.

Fanning explains that Shostakovich obviously makes a good candidate for a dissident in post-Soviet Russia as many Russians wanted to dissociate themselves from the Communist view point which suppressed them and how it is natural to portray Shostakovich as how ‘we would like to imagine ourselves acting in his shoes’.

He notes that if an ‘oaf’ can hear the meaning behind his 5th symphony, as Volkov claims Shostakovich said in Testimony, then so to can the Soviet Government or one of the many informers and that would mean definite consequences for Shostakovich.

2.   Analytical sources

  • Dimitri Shostakovich – 5th Symphony. (2009) Keeping Score. [TV Documentary]  USA: SFS Media, 2009.

Michael Tilson Thomas explores the music of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony in search of clues which lead to the conclusion that he was indeed writing a piece of music which, although acceptable to the requirements of Stalin’s regime, was subtly flaunting his hatred of it.

At the end of the 1920s and beginning of 1930s, musical creativity was slaughtered by Stalin – anything which wasn’t exactly in line with his propaganda was considered ‘formalism’ and harsh consequences for the composer, performer and anybody who condoned or was involved in the piece were likely. Stalin wanted simple music – music for the masses.

The first gesture Shostakovich makes towards mocking this idea of simplicity is in bar 4 where he introduces 3 repeated A natural notes. This theme is recurring throughout the entire symphony, often abruptly ending other themes. Thomas puts it as Shostakovich saying ‘is this simple enough for you?’. He explains how Shostakovich starts the symphony on a ‘ta-da’ figure, used by the likes of Beethoven, to then ‘wiggle down’ into this repetition of the A note.

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5, Bars 1-4. (Violin Part)

Aside from the recurring theme of the repetitive A natural, Thomas’s other major observation about the piece is at figure 131 when it is coming to its final cadence. Instead of the conventional ‘happy ending’ which would have been expected of him, Shostakovich decides to use one altered note, Bb, which has such as an impact as the movement went through a painful process to finally reach the major key, then at the last cadence it looks back to minor. Thomas sees this as ‘one last stomp into submission’ by the same ‘dead end’ notes, played on the timpani drums.

Shostakovich, in Testimony, states of his finale:

“It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.”

3.   Performances

  • Shostakovich, D. (1959) Symphony No.5 (Bernstein, L.(conductor), New York Philharmonic Orchestra.). USA [After Soviet tour of 1959]

Bernstein certainly has the most controversial of Shostakovich interpretations. Being from America, the message behind the symphony isn’t one which he can personally relate to, but he does interpret the piece in a way very unlike most Soviet composers and Shostakovich has praised Bernstein for this.

Personally, I feel that the tempi used by Bernstein are too fast and unrepresentative of the struggle which should be conveyed.

His grandiose approach serves well in the Scherzo at emphasising the flamboyancy of such a piece, but it’s this approach which, to me, makes the largo feel just rehearsed and recited (rather than felt).

  • Shostakovich, D. (1937) Symphony No.5 (Rostropovich, M.(conductor) National Symphony Orchestra.). Grand Hall, Moscow State Conservatory, Moscow. [February 13, 1990]

Rostropovich was a good friend of Shostakovich’s (Shostakovich was Rostropovich’s teacher at the Moscow Conservatory) and also lived during the troubled times of the Soviet Era. This gives him a personal connection in trying to convey the emotions of the piece – he also experienced the same fear Shostakovich did when writing it.

Personally, I feel that Rostropovich’s interpretation of the largo is one of the most sorrowful pieces of music I’ve heard. The tremolo of the strings at figure 90 really exposes the fury and despair which this requiem was written with. Prokofiev, after hearing the symphony performed – admittedly not by Rostropovich – in Moscow, sent Shostakovich a note of congratulations[3] but asked; ‘Why so much tremolo in the Strings?’.

Rostropovich had a feel for Shostakovich’s music – Shostakovich’s first 2 cello concertos were written for him. This connection, I feel, allows Rostropovich to deliver moving interpretations of all of Shostakovich’s symphonies which he conducted – not just the 5th.

[1] The most prominent study being that of Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov who, after 2 books on the topic, have concluded that they believe Testimony is authentic.

[2] MacDonald, I. (1990) The New Shosakovich. 2006 Edition. UK: Fourth Estate.

[3] Fanning, D. (1995) Shostakovich Studies. UK: Cambridge University Press.


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