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Symphony No. 5

Dmitri Shostakovich responded to threatening criticism in the Soviet press with his dramatic, triumphant Symphony No. 5, completed quickly in spring 1937 and destined for both official acceptance and long-lasting public success.

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He began his Symphony No. 5 on April 18, 1937, and completed it on July 20, 1937. It was first performed on November 21, 1937, in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then called) by the Leningrad Philharmonic, under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky.

The score of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, snare drum, bass drum), two harps, piano, celesta, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The symphony is about 48 minutes long.

More has been written and said about the Symphony No. 5 of Dmitri Shostakovich than about any other single symphony composed in the 20th century. The most often performed of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies, it has served ever since its dramatic 1937 premiere as a blank but evocative canvas upon which countless commentators have projected sharply divergent political ideologies, personal jealousies, hopes, terrors, and fantasies. The Fifth has been called many things, not all of them accurate: “a Soviet artist’s creative reply to just criticism,” an “optimistic tragedy,” “a masterpiece of socialist realism.” Completed during one of the most terrifying and uncertain periods in Soviet history, when dictator Joseph Stalin was supervising the arrest, imprisonment, and often execution of thousands of prominent figures in political and cultural life, the Fifth Symphony literally saved Shostakovich’s neck. Its very public triumph also established Shostakovich (at the tender age of 31) as the leading Soviet composer, a position he would occupy—with numerous hair-raising ups and downs—until his death in 1975.

Given the enormous cultural and political significance of the Fifth Symphony, its relatively conservative and “classical” personality is ironic and strange. In most of his earlier music, the proudly avant-garde Shostakovich had been gleefully “pushing the envelope.” Although his Symphony No. 1 (1925) adheres more or less to traditional symphonic form, the Symphony No. 2 (To October, 1927) and Symphony No. 3 (First of May, 1929) are sprawling and programmatic, scored for gargantuan forces and featuring concluding choruses set to jingoistic political verses. The Symphony No. 4 (1935-36), which Shostakovich once called “a sort of credo of my work as an artist,” indulged in what the composer himself later described as “grandiosomania.” Exceeding sixty minutes, it is rivaled in length, instrumentation, and scale only by the Seventh Symphony (Leningrad).

Just as he was finishing the Fourth, Shostakovich’s existence was turned upside down by the publication on January 28, 1936, in the official Communist Party newspaper Pravda, of a scathing attack (“Muddle Instead of Music”) on his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. First performed in 1934, Lady Macbeth had been a huge hit with Soviet audiences in Leningrad and Moscow, and had already been staged abroad. But Stalin and his cultural “advisers” belatedly decided that the opera’s overt sexuality, raw language, slapstick irreverence, and frequently dissonant musical style were inappropriate for the Soviet audience. Lady Macbeth was immediately banned from Soviet theaters, and Shostakovich’s musical—and personal—future, previously so limitless, suddenly looked terribly uncertain.

A casualty of the fallout from the Pravda attack was the Fourth Symphony. Shostakovich withdrew it after a few rehearsals, under intense pressure from local bureaucrats. Surely one of the features of the Fourth that displeased the Party watchdogs was its fourth movement, a Largo built around a funeral march, Mahler-style. Socialist Realist symphonies were not supposed to conclude in such a depressing mood—audiences had to be sent away optimistic and hopeful for the shining Communist future, preferably with a stirring military-style march to propel them out into the sunshine. In the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich would provide that march-like finale, although debate still rages over whether he intended it sincerely or ironically.

When he started work on the Fifth Symphony in April 1937, Shostakovich was all too aware how much was on the line: “Not everything in my preceding works was of equal value. There were some failures. So I have tried in my Fifth Symphony to show the Soviet listener that I have taken a turn towards greater accessibility, towards greater simplicity.” An artist less sure of himself and his talent would have been crushed by the weight of the expectations. With a family to support, he could not afford to alienate all his patrons. And yet he abhorred the thought of cheapening his talent and integrity by creating music that pandered to the Party’s demands—which were not always easy to decipher in any case.

As usual, however, Shostakovich got the music down on paper quickly once the preparatory work had been done in his head. He wrote the third-movement Largo, the symphony’s emotional and dramatic center, in a mere three days. “The final birth of this work was preceded by prolonged inner preparation,” Shostakovich said. “My new work could be called a lyrical-heroic symphony. Its main idea is the sufferings of mankind and an all-affirming optimism. I aimed to show how—through a series of tragic conflicts and great inner spiritual struggle—optimism is affirmed as a world view. The subject of my symphony is the genesis of the individual. I placed man and all his sufferings at the center.” But one wonders how much of what Shostakovich said was merely intended to placate Soviet officialdom.

And yet the harmonic style and formal structure of the Fifth Symphony are clearly more “accessible” in certain ways. The Fifth adheres relatively closely to classical symphonic form, built on a base of diatonic tonal harmony, with a first movement using relatively straightforward sonata form, followed by a short scherzo-like movement, a long slow movement, and a finale of decisive character. Of particular note is the absence of any dedication or programmatic description, especially given Shostakovich’s fondness for descriptive titles. Shostakovich may well have decided that in the aftermath of the Lady Macbeth scandal it was safer not to give his potential attackers any ammunition in the form of texts or titles that could be misconstrued or turned against him. The Fifth is the most purely “abstract” of all of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Curious, too, is the absence of any folk or “borrowed” material (except from Shostakovich himself, as we will see) in what is allegedly an exemplar of Socialist Realism—an aesthetic that strongly encouraged the inclusion of folk material as an expression of “popular” culture.

The Fifth Symphony is most strongly indebted to two composers: Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. There is the same sharp contrast between two emotional worlds (especially in the first movement) drawn in Tchaikovsky: the implacable world of fate in conflict with the subjective world of human experience and limitation. Like Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies, Shostakovich’s Fifth also concludes after long passages of soul-searching, doubt, and despair with an upbeat, even militaristic finale.

But Beethoven’s spirit hovers even more insistently. This kinship appears in the symphony’s opening bars, in the famous “motto” theme that jumps portentously from D to B-flat and down to A, the dominant of the symphony’s home key of D minor, before transforming into an accompaniment for the second theme. What these opening bars bring most obviously to mind are the opening bars of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and (to a lesser extent) the opening motto theme of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. This kinship seems even more plausible when we recall that Shostakovich’s Fifth and Beethoven’s Ninth also share a common key of D minor. And Beethoven (with his idealistic dreams of a utopian brotherhood of man) was a musical and political model long admired both by Shostakovich and by the keepers of Soviet culture.

In the first movement, Shostakovich uses the epic motto theme as an organizing principle, returning to it in its original and altered forms. In sharp contrast are two more lyrical themes, the first wandering somewhat uncertainly and trailing off into nervous stepwise movement, the second remarkably serene, contemplative, and free of conflict. The short second movement shows us the sarcastic, ironic side of Shostakovich already familiar from the First Symphony and the Piano Concerto No. 1. But the symphony’s prevailing mood is serious and reflective, as the length (nearly thirteen minutes) and almost unbearable emotional intensity of the Largo, with its expressionistic writing for strings, make clear. It isn’t easy to write music to follow such an exquisite confession of grief and suffering, and the finale (denounced by one critic for its “undertones of Slav hysteria”) has always been the most controversial movement.

Outwardly, the spirit of celebration and optimism can seem forced and superficial, but Shostakovich included a hidden subversive message underneath all those blaring trumpets and rattling drums. It is a musical quotation from the setting of a poem (“Rebirth”) by Alexander Pushkin which Shostakovich had composed a few months earlier, one of the Four Pushkin Romances, Opus 46. The initial march theme takes its contour from the four notes setting the first three words of the poem, dealing with one of Pushkin’s favorite themes, the struggle between genius and mediocrity in art. Here, the struggle ends with the artist triumphant over his persecutors. At the time, these romances were unpublished and unknown, so the reference was intended for Shostakovich alone—and, perhaps, for future generations.

The public reaction to the star-studded premiere of the Fifth Symphony in Leningrad on November 21, 1937, was ecstatic, and has gone down as one of the most important events in the history of Soviet culture. The concert also marked the beginning of a long and fruitful association between Shostakovich and the young conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky. One elderly philologist in attendance even compared Shostakovich’s triumph with the one he had witnessed for Tchaikovsky at the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, in 1893. While the Party cultural bureaucrats were made uneasy by the extraordinary display of enthusiasm for Shostakovich at this and subsequent performances, in the end they accepted the public verdict. With the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich resurrected his personal and musical fortunes, narrowly escaping the catastrophe that would strike down numerous artistic friends and colleagues at the end of the 1930s. But it was hardly the last time that Shostakovich would feel like a hunted man.

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography; The Last Impresario: The Life, Times and Legacy of Sol Hurok, and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He has contributed essays and reviews to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Symphony, Musical America, and Opera News, and program essays to the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival, and Metropolitan Opera.

The first American performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 was an NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast led by Artur Rodzinski on April 9, 1938.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 were led by Richard Burgin on January 20 and 21, 1939.