The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Thomas May

Being an artist in the Stalinist era could entail extreme hazard. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) learned this firsthand through a devastating, overnight turn in his luck. The official Communist newspaper Pravda carried a review on January 28, 1936 - a thinly veiled attack and warning in reality - of his wildly successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Stalin had decided personally to attend the long-running production. He left before the final act began. For reasons that remain a matter of debate, the dictator took offense -  or perhaps he just wanted to make Shostakovich a whipping boy as a further means to exercise thought control (much like Hitler to the West, with his "degenerate art" exhibits set up as cautionary tales). The review-editorial, ominously headed "Chaos Instead of Music," doomed Shostakovich to an immediate fall from grace. At least he was fortunate not to suffer the fate of many a fellow artist who was "disappeared" or sent to the gulag. But this disaster made the pressure of deciding where to go next with his music nearly unbearable. 

Shostakovich came of age during a heady period of artistic experimentation following the Communist Revolution in 1917. He had been just a teenage student when his First Symphony catapulted him to international fame and launched his career as a significant new voice. All too briefly, creative ferment was in the air, from abstract painters like Kasimir Malevich to the anti-naturalist, avant-garde theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold (who later collaborated with Shostakovich) - not to mention the rush instigated by the new art of cinema. But that freedom proved illusory.  

It's striking how quickly Shostakovich discovered his voice and to find the technical means toward its expression. For all its obvious digestion of prior influences, already his First Symphony proudly elaborated a unique temperament, presenting the two faces of an intriguing but uneasy dualism: a kind of snarky sarcasm counterbalanced by sustained, crushing melancholy.  

That work's success boosted the confidence of the young composer, who began to entertain highly ambitious projects, showing a particular flair for the world of opera. At one point he even projected a "Soviet Ring of the Nibelungs." (Lady Macbeth was meant to occupy the position of Das Rheingold as a prelude to a subsequent trilogy focused on the role of women before and after the Revolution.) But the condemnation of 1936 essentially spelled the end of Shostakovich's operatic career - undoubtedly a tremendous loss for 20th-century music theater. What was gained was a renewed focus on the more abstract genres of the symphony and string quartet. Into these Shostakovich would pour his profoundest creative impulses, becoming one of the century's great masters of each.  

Because of his public disgrace, the stakes were enormous when Shostakovich was ready to reveal his next major public work, the Fifth Symphony. He had actually completed another probing and highly experimental work - his Fourth Symphony - around the time of the Lady Macbeth review. But he now deemed this too dangerous to bring before the public and cancelled rehearsals that were already under way (the Fourth would remain unperformed until 1961). Then, in a burst of creative fire, Shostakovich found a new direction for his Fifth Symphony, which he began in April 1937 and completed in an astonishing three months. In her fascinating memoirs, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (Rostropovich's wife, who died just last December) observes that the composer had to have the piece vetted by a Party committee before the public premiere: "A few dozen nincompoops got together to judge a genius." 

Yet even instant success and official approval were not enough to safeguard the composer's position. Throughout the rest of his career, Shostakovich still had to face the whims of the Soviet thought police with tormented uncertainty. Indeed, shortly after the Second World War he endured another reversal of fortune. Even in post-Stalinist times official pressure intruded: When his devastating Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar") was essentially banned, for example, Rostropovich smuggled the score out of the country so it could be performed in the West. 

Perhaps the single most extraordinary aspect of this work is how true to its composer's original voice it remains while turning in a more consciously "populist" direction that resorts to traditional forms. In the wake of the attack against him, Shostakovich might easily have submerged his identity in the faceless sort of pseudo-epic, pseudo-folk music that was favored by the Communist Party (under the catchphrase "Socialist Realism"). But instead we hear both the darkly lyrical and the sarcastic - characteristics already present from the First Symphony, though here in different proportions - presented through highly imaginative orchestration. 

The Symphony's two longest movements (the first and third) present emotionally probing canvases. The first stretches over a highly charged landscape, all the while economically playing out variants of essentially just two ideas. First is the opening call-and-response statement in the strings with its jagged, quasi-baroque dotted rhythms (this passage even found its way into pop music when Morrissey sampled it on his song "The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils"). Immediately following, the violins sing a plaintive and long-breathed melody.  Shostakovich uses his large orchestra with masterful confidence to build up blaring, Mahler-like marches (with perhaps Mahler-like irony, if we pay attention to the anxious tone inherent in the first theme's ambiguous questioning). He also gives us touchingly fragile moments to savor: notice especially the beautiful dialog of flute and horn in the coda. Conductor Vladimir Spivakov identified this as a quote of Carmen's phrase "l'Amour" from her signature Habañera in Bizet's opera, as if to ask, he notes, "what love means in a Communist society, where people are supposed to love each other." 

Shostakovich's biting sarcasm returns for the brief Scherzo (opening in the lower depths, with a number of echoes of the Scherzo from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony). This brevity conveys the feeling of comic relief, though its manic spirit is more likely to whip up than relax the listener's pulse. The movement's attitude of ostensible merriment begins to teeter ever closer to a mad waltz, on the brink of sanity - a foretaste of what is to come in the finale. The expansive Largo following is painted with a reduced palette - Shostakovich leaves the brass out - but contains some of the Symphony's most radiant and emotionally gripping music, alternating the string choir with passages for woodwinds and harp. Shostakovich creates an especially powerful long-term effect in his contrast of thin-atmosphere textures (such as the lone flute's solo, voiced as if from atop a mountain) with the ensemble climax toward which the movement relentlessly builds.  

The finale is the Fifth Symphony's puzzle movement. On the surface, it seems to confirm a long tradition (since Beethoven's Fifth) of achieving the end of the journey from darkness to triumph. Indeed the first movement's tragic minor mode and scope seem to yield to brassy assertions of D major triumphalism, punctuated by chest-pounding timpani and bass drum - an ending basically mandated by the doctrine of Socialist Realism. Given the specific circumstances in which Shostakovich composed the work, a tendency arose to view this finale as "selling out" - for those inclined to take a superficial, literalist view, that is.  

But all is not as it seems here - and it is all but impossible to explain further without referring to the NSO's former music director, who was pivotal in challenging that once-prevailing view. First, the symphony's proportions - with those long first and third movements full of pain - do not seem to gravitate toward an "optimistic" ending. Even more, those close to the composer have claimed that the final pages are intentionally unconvincing. The whole issue is in fact caught up in a larger debate - one which shows no signs of subsiding, more than three decades after his death - about Shostakovich's music in relation to his times. On one extreme are those who claim - using this finale as a prime example - that the composer was a sort of musical apparatchik opting for conformity over conscience. Through his legendary performances of the work, however, Rostropovich, who knew Shostakovich as a close friend, caused us to question the standard interpretation of the finale and movingly made the case that this music is an act of subversive irony which "celebrates" a forced march to a hollow victory.

The critic who praised the Symphony No. 5 with the famously smug phrase "a Soviet artist's creative response to just criticism" (which Shostakovich was compelled to accept as its subtitle) was at least right - with unknowing irony - about the "creative response" part.  As Slava suggested, the real victory, in the end, belongs to Shostakovich.