Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1906-1975. Symphony No. 5 in d, Op. 47. Completed 1937, first performance November 21, 1937, in Leningrad. Scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 2 harps, piano, celesta, tympani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, xylophone, glockenspiel, triangle, and strings.

The late 1930's were not a good time for Dmitri Shostakovich. His successful opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was banned after Stalin saw it in 1936 and was offended by its veiled criticism of the Communist regime. This was no small matter; most who drew the dictator's wrath soon died in a labor camp. Shostakovich was luckier, perhaps because the young composer had already achieved some international recognition, but the attacks in Pravda turned him into a pariah who began keeping a packed suitcase beside his bed in case he were arrested in the night.

Shostakovich's next misstep came with the Fourth Symphony, which he had been composing in his mind for some time. Despite the risk of associating with an ``enemy of the people,'' the Leningrad Philharmonic agreed to premiere it, but the rehearsals went badly, and it became clear to Shostakovich that a performance of such a forward-looking work would be dangerous to his life. In December of 1936, he announced that it was a failure and withdrew it, ostensibly to work on the finale. The Fourth was lost during the war, and it was only in 1961 that it was reconstructed and premiered exactly as written.

Meanwhile, Russia was undergoing what would later be called the ``Great Terror.'' For his own reasons, Stalin had concocted an assassination and then responded to it with a level of repression rarely seen in human history. After he declared that five percent of the population was ``unreliable,'' orders went out that the number of arrests must match this figure. Guilt was irrelevant; it was sufficient to round up ten or fifteen thousand people from a given town and send them off to Siberia. Historians disagree on the exact number of Russian citizens murdered during this time (partly because many of the deaths were later blamed on World War II), but it was certainly in the millions.

In such an atmosphere, and with a wife and two young children to worry about, it was only natural that Shostakovich would pull his head back into his shell and try to please the authorities. And so he did, at least on the surface: the Fifth Symphony's subtitle is ``A Soviet Artist's Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism.''

But throughout history, artists have thumbed their noses at authorities who were too dense to see through their parody and satire, and Shostakovich was no different. One does not need to look far beneath the surface of the Fifth to discover just what this ``practical'' reply actually contains. The first movement begins with a cry of despair, a tragic lament that goes on for some time before suddenly being interrupted by a goose-stepping march led by a two-note tympani theme, a motive that musicologist Ian MacDonald calls the ``Stalin theme.'' The third movement is one of the most despairing pieces of music ever written, a memorial for Mother Russia and all those sent to the labor camps. And of the finale, Shostakovich wrote in his memoirs (smuggled out of Russia after the composer's death):

What exultation could there be? I think 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.'' What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.

The Fifth was hugely successful. The government was pleased that the rebel had knuckled under, while the Russian in the street saw the truth behind the facade. Western listeners, generally unaware of what was going on behind Stalin's mask, took the work at face value, yet were still overwhelmed by its grandeur and beauty. The symphony has become Shostakovich's most popular work, and the relatively recent revelation of its true meaning can only enhance our enjoyment of this testament to one man's struggle to express his people's anguish under a brutal tyrant.

© 1997, Geoff Kuenning

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