Shostakovich – Fifth Symphony – heroic or tragical

Posted on December 14, 2012


Imagine a rainy day when you are at home. You had great plans of going out, but the weather is miserable. You settle to the table to have some breakfast and switch on the radio – nothing but the same old stuff, repeating the first entries of the official chart over and over again. But once the doorbell rings, and you are asked to sign for a rather large package wrapped in brown paper. You read the label “A Soviet Artists Response to Just Criticism”, and before you realise that you are not the addressee, the postman is gone. The package was meant to arrive at the Main Headquarter of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in November 1937. You open the package and find yourself in a miniature concert hall, and the music you hear is refreshingly different from the official radio chart. You start listening, and the more you hear, the more difficult it is to distract yourself, your plans for the day are shattered. The music is gripping, taking you through a sequence of mixed and contrasting impressions – low and meditative, tantalisingly beautiful melodies alternating with dramatic climaxes, joyous dancing and forceful marches. Altogether it sounds magnificent, beautiful and … fearsome, leaving a mixed impression of exaltation and anxiety.

To understand the format and the content of this package, and perhaps to better identify with the emotions evoked by them it is helpful to look at the life circumstances leading Shostakovich to compose this piece of music. It was composed in 1936-37, during the period of the Great Purge, an era of murderous political repression and persecution of gigantic scale led by Joseph Stalin, when people considered to be “the enemies of the Soviet State” were subject to surveillance, imprisonment, or simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Many intellectuals, including Shostakovich’s friend and relatives were subject to such persecution. The fifth symphony follows the composition of two important masterpieces that led the composer at odds with the Communist Party – the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District and the Fourth Symphony. The opera was a large scale musical enterprise demonstrating the skills and musical maturity of a young composer. However, after it was watched by Stalin the official state newspaper published an article entitled ‘Muddle in spite of music’, a writing often attributed to Stalin himself, in which the opera was described as primitive, vulgar and not compatible with the Soviet ideals. This equalled with the public denunciation of Shostakovich’s music, making his life circumstances extremely difficult and dangerous. It is hard to imagine the fear and terror he must have experienced when facing the anger of the leader(s) of the merciless Soviet apparatus. During this time he was already in the middle of composing the fourth symphony, which was built along strong West European progressive and innovative lines. Being advised to do so by his friends and colleagues, Shostakovich withdrew the fourth Symphony from publication shortly before its premiere. It was only premiered in late 1961.

After the publication of the “Muddle” article Shostakovich was summoned by Stalin’s emissary, being asked whether “he fully understood the criticism”. There was no way out, if he wanted to remain in the musical stage (or more accurately speaking, to stay alive) he had to demonstrate his understanding of the criticism by composing something of the likes of the Communist Party. The result was the Fifth Symphony. It is clearly using a more formal and easily penetrable musical language than the Fourth, and it was a sweeping success on his premiere in Leningrad on 21st November 1937. But is it a heroic epos of the “glorious Soviet ideology”, or it is something else?

The first movement introduces a number of musical motifs that return in later parts of the symphony. The first motif, rather dissonant – a succession of two note figures a minor sixth apart – is introduced abruptly by the strings. It is followed by several further melodic elements, which are more harmonic with each other, using figures of minor thirds and octaves. Variations of these elements alternate during the first movement, which is, taken altogether is characterised by a contrast between finely lyrical moments and harsh-dramatic climaxes, at times with a forcefully marching tempo. The second movement is different, it is a scherzo in tempo allegretto. While giving the superficial impression of some sort of jolly dancing, this music sounds clearly sarcastic and artificial, almost hysterical, a complete mismatch with what it preceded and what it follows. The third movement however, sounds genuinely lyrical, full of grace, beauty and tragedy, a music similar to the composer’s string quartets. The fourth movement returns to the style of the first one, with various melodic motifs coming across in the context of slow meditative and dramatic moments. However, the lyrical parts appear to me constrained within the frame of a starting and ending march, both dominated by timpani, forceful string playing and brass.

The ending of the fourth movement, built on a string ostinato, as it is written in the original score with a quaver (eighth note) equalling a (rather slow) tempo of 184, sounds to me more like enforced plodding under heavy weight than a glorious celebration.

KBS Symphony Orchestra, Conductor: Rumon Gamba, Korean Art Centre Concert Hall,Seoul Korea 30th,Oct,2009

Of course, to the Soviet officials who expected a glorious affirmation of their ideology, this appeared to be a mistake and they regarded the correct tempo to be approximately twice as fast. So it seems to have appeared to some of the Western conductors doing performances of the fifth, including a very influential recording of Leonard Bernstein.

New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Conductor: Leonard Bernstein

However, looking at the overall structure of this genial masterpiece, including the joyous-neurotic façade of the second movement and the gripping-tragical lyricism of the third, it seems to me that Shostakovich’s “response to criticism” is very far from sheepish apologies. In fact, I believe it is the other extreme of the spectrum – hair-raising bravery, transcending ordinary human existence.

References and useful links:
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-75) – Symphony No. 5, by Paul Serotsky on Open Writing webmagazine [online]. Available from: [Accessed on 11th December 2012]

Explore the Score: Shostakovich- Symphony no. 5 in D minor by Kenneth Woods [online]. Available from: [Accessed on 11th December 2012] – a conductor’s personal analysis of the music

Symphony No. 5 (Shostakovich) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 11th December 2012]

Dmitri Shostakovich [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 11th December 2012]

Posted in: Part 2