Dmitri Schostakovich / Symphony No.5 (1937)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a Russian composer and pianist who lived and worked in Russia during the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. He is regarded as a major voice of the 20th century and his harmonic and musical idiom has left its unique spot in the history of classical music. His Symphony No. 5 in D minor Op. 47 is arguably his most famous work, which gained widespread popularity after its premiere for its more accessible idiom and its cryptic, layered message. What was, however, that message, and how can it help us understand this work better? A bit of historical background is required for us to answer that question.

After the rise of Stalin to total control in the late 1920s and 1930s, the government- affiliated Union of Soviet Composers was created to regulate musical expression and monitor the overall character of “Soviet realist” music. As Robert P. Morgan remarks: “[the Union] adhered strictly to the official Soviet view that art must ‘depict reality in its revolutionary development.’ Music, as well as the other arts, had to be ‘about something,’ to have ‘social content.’ […] Any work that did not adhere to its principles, as determined by those in power, was condemned as ‘formalist’”[1] (CITE, p.238) One of the biggest condemnations of the Union was the attack on Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a gruesome realist opera premiered in 1934 that illustrated the hardships of a 19th- century lonely woman who is driven to madness and murder. In 1936, a few days after a performance of the work at a Soviet music festival help in Moscow, an editorial appeared in Pravda, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, which attacked Shostakovich’s work as “vulgar”, “clamorous” and “neurasthenic” that appealed to “the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences”, ending with a threat to the composer himself that if he does not change his ways, “this game might end very badly.”[2] (CITE, p. 744) This was a huge blow to the composer’s public image, considering he was viewed up until that point as a representative artistic voice of the Communist Party’s ideology.

Following that incident, Shostakovich was in a very difficult position regarding how to move forward. He asked for the withdrawal of his newly- composed Fourth Symphony from a 1936 premiere concert, which meant that the work wouldn’t be heard until 25 years after it was composed, in 1961. In April 1937, he began working on his Fifth Symphony, which is characterized by a noticeably more approachable harmonic idiom; his work seemed constrained in its expression, avoiding excessively grotesque melodies and textures in favour of more approachable ones. Yet this work, during its premiere in Leningrad on November 21st 1937, received tremendous applause and praise from the audience which, as the sources tell us, wept audibly through the slow movement and was already on its feet by the final movement, cheering and clapping for more than half an hour after the work was performed. What is it, then, that made Shostakovich rise so quickly from a threat to the Communist Party to one of the most revered composers in the country overnight?.

1) Moderato- Allegro non troppo

The first movement opens with an imposing theme of rising and falling sixths, played by the cellos and violins in canon. The whole first section of this modified sonata form movement is very sparse and contrapuntal, almost creating a chamber music feeling. Another melody arises in the violins, a bit more melodic this time but still quite hollow and eerie sounding. The winds now introduce a third idea, starting from the oboe and moving to the bassoon and horn as the music unfolds. After an initial climax, the falling and rising sixths come back to close the initial part of the exposition before the second theme is introduced. This second theme is, in fact, just an enlarged version of the initial sixths motif, now with an added pulsating accompaniment underneath it that provides a quietly driving energy and completely transforms its character. In the development section, we hear all sorts of manipulations of these melodic ideas. An opening section features slight developments on the ideas heard before, before a low figure on the piano steers us towards an intense and contrapuntally dense section. Many themes from the exposition are heard one after another, sometimes coinciding and creating interesting polyphonies. This section finally culminates in a march-like climax, where the brass play a grotesque parody of a march tune. The sixths now return more vicious than ever and egged on by the brass and woodwinds. All this culminates in a final explosion of sound, leading us to an iteration of the strings theme from the beginning by the full orchestra, punctuated by loud tutti chords. The music dies down, leading us to a truly wonderful moment of musical calm, where the secondary theme comes back in a glowing D major tonality instead of the minor it was before. The flute and horn duet in a passage as beautiful for the flute as it is technically demanding for the horn. However, that moment of glee only lasts for a short while, and the music assumes its darker tone, finally ending in a heartbreaking solo violin passage over pulsating accompaniment figures. The movement is swept away by rising chromatic scales from the celesta, leaving us with a sense of loss, yet a yearning to find out what could possibly follow this movement.

2) Allegretto

The second movement is noted for its sardonic, tongue-in-cheek flavour. It is evidently a parody of a dance movement, which would typically come third in a symphonic work and would help lighten the mood after a lyrical slow second movement. It is interesting to note how Shostakovich borrows the idea of a parodying dance movement coming second from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, where a curious waltz written in 5/8 similarly follows a tragic first movement. The movement starts in the low end of the strings with a rather pompous melody. This is followed by a famous passage for Eb clarinet that squeaks, hiccups and snarls its way into the main section. The feeling of this dance music is one of lopsidedness and grotesque dancing, accentuated by the constant time signature changes which make the music virtually undanceable. The horns take on a rustic second melody which sounds like listening to Beethoven’s horn trio from the Third Symphony played by drunk marching band musicians. The music gets quieter in the middle part of the movement, where the violin plays a similarly odd-sounding tune. The music gets increasingly volatile as one instrumental group’s loud remarks are met with another’s quiet murmurs. We are led to the repetition of the first section through a quiet pizzicato iteration of the melody heard in the beginning of the movement. Now the music feels more unhinged than ever as it slowly crescendos to a raucous repetition of the horn melody. One quiet, distant fragment of the middle part is suggested by a timid oboe before the music tramples that over too in an almost strident, explosive finale.

3) Largo

Now is typically the turn of the slow movement, which in this case is has a deeply lyrical quality. The first part is curiously reminiscent of the profoundly pathetic beginning of Barber’s Adagio for strings. We begin however with only the violins split into three parts instead of the typical two, which offers a sparser texture and allows the music to obtain a more vulnerable quality. The melodic lines are long and winding, but the harmonies convey as sense of desperation. We begin the second part with a beautifully delicate and eerie flute duet, accompanied by delicate pedal points on the harp. This brings us into a gut-wrenching first climax, after which another lonely melody on the oboe is heard. The movement is remarkable for its large-scale planning, leaving you with a sense of prolonged excitement but abstaining from a more rigorous structure compared to the previous two movements. The first section now comes back in a solemn woodwind choir, leading us into an even more passionate outburst of emotion. The music seems unable to move after this point. A few feeble attempts to resurrect earlier melodies and textures don’t seem to be enough. The celesta comes back yet again to sign off the movement in an air of hopelessness similar to that of the first movement. There is, however, a sense of catharsis at the final major chords breathed out by the strings, as if what just took place was as difficult to hear as it was necessary.

4) Allegro non troppo

Arguably the most controversial movement of the four, this finale generates is full of points for discussion, starting from the fact that it follows such a heart-wrenching movement as the third. The piece seems unable to lighten up now, as would be typical for the second half of a symphonic work, and yet the music starts out with a bang. The first theme is a march played by the timpani and the brass that feels imposing and bombastic. Depending on the tempo of the performance, you can hear this first section as anything from paced yet pompous to furiously fiery. Previous melodic fragments explored in other movements are brought back and revisited now in an attempt to form a closing movement to the whole work. The middle section is more inward and reflective on what has happened, with a kind lyrical melody in the brass below oscillating violins. Shostakovich here showcases his talent to tread the fine line separating curiously lyrical and eerie, unsettling music. The woodwinds add their own comments to the now simpler texture before we reach a curiously calm ending. The victory, however, is only short-lived, and soon enough a funeral rendition of the opening theme in the low part of the woodwinds reintroduces the first section, leading us to an ear-splitting ending.

It’s the coda of this movement that has sparked the most controversy amongst audiences, and perhaps also what helped the work gain so much popularity. An apparently victorious fanfare in the brass accompanied by loud bangs on the timpani is competing against with insistent high-pitched screams from the violins. The resulting music was originally read as triumphant and celebratory by middle and upper-class audiences. However, there were many that pointed out how difficult it would be for the piece to convey such a sense of victory after all the other movements that came before it. A tragic first movement, a sarcastic dance and a lamenting slow movement are simply too overpowering not to inform the tone of this finale. I personally abide with the viewpoint, then, that this is a false victory. This is Shostakovich’s way of responding to the critique he received a year before he wrote this piece, his own form of codified rebellion against a system of oppression and musical totalitarianism. Bernstein’s interpretation is infamous for the choice of tempo for this coda, which on the one hand serves to give the music a sense of drive, but which for me loses the poignancy of this desolating scream of a coda. Played at a slower tempo (see, for example, Maxim Shostakovich or Andris Nelsons), the music seems almost unbearable to sustain, making the vision of a hollow victory even more apparent. It is no surprise, therefore, how this work managed to get so much widespread praise from so many different social groups; everyone saw in it what they truly desired; for the higher classes, it was control and celebration; for the lower, it was revolution and redemption. This work is truly a testament to the power of absolute music to surpass any specific interpretation, allowing itself to be received in as many possible ways as there are stars in the sky.


Phoebus Kyriakoudis, October 2020


References [1] Morgan, R., 1991. Twentieth Century Music. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, p.238. [2] Taruskin, R. and Gibbs, C., 2019. The Oxford History Of Western Music. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.744.

Phoebus has also written:

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