Following its premiere there was widespread speculation—from an ‘official’ review by Alexei Tolstoy to Shostakovich’s son Maxim’s remarks many years later—about just what Shostakovich was saying. Reading how others interpreted the music may help you decide what you think this controversial symphony means.
All in all, it was the reactions to the Finale that were the most disparate. Even Shostakovich, who could probably never speak freely, gave widely conflicting reports of just what he meant by the ending. So, what do you think? If you had been a friend of Shostakovich’s, sitting in the audience at the Symphony’s premiere, would you have been acutely relieved or mortally terrified?
“With the finale comes an enormous optimistic lift.”
“It finished with victorious fanfares whose ‘outspoken’ nature could not be called into doubt.”
—The ‘official’ reaction, as quoted by Mickhail Chulaki, one time director of the Leningrad Philharmonic
“Conclusion: it is not military, then it is something evil threatening Shostakovich personally. Rehearsal 128 to the end. It says again and again: ‘No. You will not be able to do anything to me.’ It is not happiness. It is not victory. It is the determination of a strong man to BE.”
“I wanted to convey optimism asserting itself as a world outlook through a series of tragic conflicts in a great inner, mental struggle ... The finale resolves the tragedy and tension of the earlier movements on a joyous, optimistic note.”
—Shostakovich in 1938
“I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, 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.’”
—May have been said by Shostakovich in the early 1970s to Solomon Volkov