In 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich, who had been the pride of the Soviet Union ever since the premiere of his First Symphony ten years earlier, suffered a dramatic fall from grace. In January of that year, Joseph Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”, and, as the saying goes, he was not amused. Within days, a devastating polemic – some say penned by Stalin himself – appeared in Pravda denouncing both the opera and its composer. Overnight, Shostakovich went from the darling of Soviet music to composer non grata and in fear for his life, as this occurred during the Great Purge, when official disfavor could quickly get one exiled to Siberia, or worse.
Shostakovich’s response to this criticism took the form of his 5th Symphony, which he composed in 1937. This symphony is more accessible than “Lady Macbeth”, and both its public and critical reception were overwhelmingly positive. Shostakovich was restored to official favor, at least for the time being, but ever since, critical opinion has been divided on whether in the 5th Symphony he acquiesced to political pressure, or only appeared to, while in fact composing a veiled protest against the totalitarian regime under which he labored. Much of the controversy concerns the triumphal 4th movement: Does it convey real rejoicing or is the rejoicing meant to be seen as forced?
It’s impossible to know for certain what was in Shostakovich’s mind when he wrote this symphony. I like what Herbert Glass, long-time music critic of the L.A. Times, wrote about it:
One can ramble on forever about the meaning and intent of the Fifth Symphony – and whether or not it is entirely straight-faced, or disingenuous, or self-serving, although there can be no doubt that the first and third movements are profoundly serious. What it ultimately comes down to is that, without disregarding the harmonic language of the 20th century, Shostakovich succeeded here in recalling the grandeur and the weight of the late-Romantic statements of Borodin and Tchaikovsky, without for a moment sounding like those composers.
Personally, I don’t detect even a hint of irony in the 4th movement, which is as unequivocal an expression of triumph as any piece of music I know. I’m inclined to take Shostakovich at his word when he writes in his preface to the score, “The theme of my Symphony is the stabilization of a personality. At the center of this composition – conceived lyrically from beginning to end – I saw a man with all his experiences. The finale resolves the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements into optimism and the joy of living.”
Perhaps Zoya Leybin, violinist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and former citizen of the Soviet Union, put it best. She said, “Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – to me it’s a mirror which represents the life and the era in which he lived. He was the messenger, and I think his music is a hymn to all of us who lived, survived, and passed on.”
Like so many other pieces I’ve featured on this blog, I was introduced to this symphony during my student days, through the famous 1959 recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. In the video that follows, we again hear Bernstein and the New York Phil, but twenty years later, in a compelling performance from 1979. The tempo indications and start times for the four movements are as follows:
Allegro non troppo (40:04)