On This Date: Shostakovich Began His Fifth Symphony 75 Years Ago

Steve Holtje

By Steve Holtje

on 06.21.12 in Spotlights

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos.5 & 9

Kirov Orchestra, St Petersburg

When Dmitri Shostakovich began his Fifth Symphony on April 18, 1937, his life hung in the balance. In January 1936, the official Soviet newspaper Pravda ran an editorial, “Muddle Instead of Music,” attacking him at the behest of Stalin, whose conservative musical tastes were offended by the modernism of Shostakovich’s until-then wildly successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.Ten days later, another editorial, “Balletic Falsity,” attacked Shostakovich’s music for the ballet Bright Stream.

After rehearsing his new Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich had second thoughts and withdrew it. Its style was similar to that of the opera (both dissonant, both satirical, both with somber conclusions), so he risked a third Pravda diatribe, or worse. Stalin’s bloody purges were beginning to escalate in scope and viciousness, and even famous artists were in danger; Maxim Gorky had been “liquidated” in June ’36. To write the Fifth Symphony, he developed a new style, less modernistic, more securely tonal.

The first movement begins boldly but ominously; the overall feeling is of quiet emotional turmoil spiked with occasional outbursts, including a mocking march. The Scherzo is a Mahleresque interlude of dark humor. The beautifulLargois always, and accurately, described as “brooding”; the brass are banished for this movement and the strings dominate. Then comes the controversial finale. It could not be pessimistic, as the Fourth’s had been; it had to conclude triumphantly for Shostakovich to be considered politically rehabilitated.

The “meaning” of the finale hinges on the veracity of Solomon Volkov’s controversial Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (published four years after the composer’s death, and considered by some to be faked), or at least acceptance of the idea of post-1936 Shostakovich as secretly dissenting via coded messages in his music. Shostakovich is quoted in Testimony as saying, “…I never thought about any exultant finales, for what exultation could there be? I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat…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.’”

Of course, Shostakovich didn’t publically say anything like that in 1937. He wrote an article purporting to explain his new symphony in which he said, “The theme of my symphony is the making of a man.…In the finale, the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and the joy of living.” Shostakovich claimed to be happy when a reviewer called the Fifth “a Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism.”

Before Testimony appeared in 1979, conductors tended to ignore Shostakovich’s tempo markings in a quest to make the finale’s coda triumphant by speeding up. Gergiev doesn’t fall into that trap. His performance throughout is magnificently Mahlerian, full of emotional chiaroscuro. His dirge-like Largo could induce open weeping, and the finale is indubitably grim. The result is poignantly defeated, yet quite soulful.