Music Born Of Fear Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5


So what actually happened? Was Shostakovich’s Symphony ‘good’ enough to save him? And will we ever know what message he meant to convey in the music?

On November 21, 1937, the Fifth Symphony had its ‘public’ premiere with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Yevgeniy Mravinsky conducting. Public enthusiasm ran high, and the New York Times wire service reported the next day that “Composer Regains His Place in Soviet.” Ironically, the overwhelmingly enthusiastic public response caused an initial Party backlash. Isaak Dunayevsky, Chairman of the Leningrad branch of the Union of Composers, wrote in January that “The brilliant mastery of the Fifth Symphony … does not preclude the fact it does not by any means display all the healthy symptoms for the development of Soviet Symphonic Music.” A private performance for party officials was arranged, and finally the work was accepted as “an optimistic tragedy.”    

Shostakovich made all the right statements publicly:
I wanted to convey in the symphony how, through a series of tragic conflicts of great inner spiritual turmoil, optimism asserts itself as a world-view … There is nothing more honorable for a composer than to create works for and with the people. The attention to music on the part of our government and all the Soviet people instills in me the confidence that I will be able to give everything that is in my power.

But from the beginning many have asserted that the symphony has a secret message of scorn, despair, and condemnation.  If the truth was elusive eighty years ago, it is even more so now; as Michael Tilson Thomas asks: “Can we trust our ears today to understand these notes as they were meant when the work was written?”

We will probably never have a definitive answer. In the end, the decision is one that each conductor, and each listener, must make for himself.

What's Your Reaction?

February 26, 2015

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stevenrothbardt (not verified)
June 30, 2011

See the DVD "Shostakovich Against Stalin." It supports the case that the Fifth (along with the Fourth through the Tenth) is indeed a comment on Stalin. Of course that's not all these works are "about," since music is really only about itself. I think MTT's performance is one of the best, if not the best performance currently. Very thoughtful and throught-provoking production, commentary, and performance.

Anonymous (not verified)
June 29, 2011

I believe that great tension is derived directly from the constant driving strings in the final march. It embodies what Shostakovich must have felt, trapped, waiting to be released. Everything around the strings is false fanfare draped onto a longing to finally let go. He may not have intended a deeper meaning but many artists infuse their work with the unconscious turmoil that they hide away.

Anonymous (not verified)
January 10, 2011
i would love to hear the finale without the strings driving relentlessly. i believe it would truly sound triumphant. so what then do the strings add? why not leave them out or modulate them. they almost drown out the exultation of the horns.
November 30, 2009
For the true source and aetiology of William Kentridge' forthcoming direction of Shostakovich's "The Nose" w/Gergiev conducting, at Met Opera NYC, March 2010, see Shostakovich's own comments on javari App for iPhone and iPod touch on iTunes, "Freud Futures" on "iMishMashUps" App Cybereditor New York NY
November 16, 2009
That words can never express the meaning of music is not the fault of music. It is the fault of words. Robert Schumann
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