Symphony No. 5 in D minor, op. 47

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           On no other major recent composer has more ink been spilt attempting to understand what thought processes and motivations reveal the true inner self, than on Shostakovich.  The evidence is fought over, sifted, and re-sifted to build the case that he was a musically-gifted, but incredibly naïve, tool of the worst instincts of Stalinism.  Or, on the other hand, a musically-gifted, but wondrously deceptive, resident critic of the terrors of Soviet Communism.  Even—something of both.  The jury of experts is still out, and will more than likely remain so, for Shostakovich left a maddeningly ambiguous record of his inner thoughts.  He was capable of writing the most satirical compositions that scathingly excoriated the excesses and flaws of Western Democracies—it is informing to remember that as a young man he spent much time playing the piano in silent movie houses.  And, of course, he is admired for music of dark and profound passion that laments the fundamental tragedies of universal human experience.  It is tempting for those who enjoy easy freedoms of artistic expression to hold others from other times to a higher moral standard and adjure them to not “sell out” their integrity.  But few major composers have endured such political and artistic oppression, as did Shostakovich.

            He was a student during the early years of the Soviet regime, and like all artists in that country enjoyed the relative indifference towards the arts by early communism.  Stylistic prescriptions and proscriptions lay in the future, and he studied the music of an array of traditional and modern composers.  He was broadly educated, and free to pursue his artistic interest unfettered.  He was generally supportive of the communist regime, and saw no reason to think otherwise.

            In all, Shostakovich wrote fifteen symphonies, and his very first one, written upon the occasion of his graduation from conservatory at the age of nineteen was an immediate and acclaimed success.   The next year he essayed his second symphony—subtitled “To October”—but despite its celebration of the Revolution, it was not well received.  Too advanced and modern, the critics said, and that pretty much went for the third one, as well.  In the meantime he had been working on a satirical opera (and Shostakovich was perhaps the greatest master of satire in the classical canon), the Nose.  Well, that didn’t set too well with the Soviet ideologues, as well, either.  He went from there to working on a much more significant opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (no relationship to Shakespeare’s work).  It was at first a success, but he was treading on thin ice with this violent, lurid story of adultery and murder set to loud, dissonant music.  It may have reflected Shostakovich’s youthful, trendy tastes, but it was profoundly out of step with changing times in the Soviet Union of Socialist Republics.

            As the world knows, during the late twenties and early thirties, life in the Soviet Union evolved into something much more sinister and challenging.  As Stalin gradually clamped down on every aspect of everyday life, the arts became progressively a tool for social and political indoctrination.    Art was impressed into the service of the state as propaganda, taking in this case the form of what is known as “Socialist Realism.”  Simply put, artists were to glorify the reality of the revolution and its benefit to Soviet citizens.   Cantatas about the arrival of new tractors to the village, about “Stalin,” the great gardener and re-forester,” were to become the norm.  Accepted musical style needed to be largely traditional, pleasant, and accessible to the masses.

            1936 marked a fateful year—the Great Terror began, in which millions were executed, including many of Shostakovich’s friends and benefactors.  It is said with fair accuracy that hardly any family went without tragedy.  Shostakovich’s own life changed profoundly on 26 January 1936, when Stalin attended a performance of Lady Macbeth.  He was not pleased, to say the least.  A few days later the notorious article in Pravda, “Muddle Instead of Music,” was published, and the composer was roundly condemned for an opera that was “coarse, primitive, and vulgar” and a “cacophony.”  Not only that, but also an endangerment to Soviet music by one who ignored the demands of Soviet culture, and more.  The diatribe—thought at the time, erroneously, perhaps to have been written personally by Stalin himself, ends with a dark hint of  “of a game that may end very badly.”

            Given the ease with which dozens of artists had already disappeared, never to be seen again, or openly executed, the life of Shostakovich and his music both literally became precarious.  He even contemplated suicide, and camped on the landing outside his apartment to ease his arrest without disturbing his family when the secret police came for him.  Taking a lower profile was the wise course—even some of his friends who defended him were shot.  But, he continued to work on this fourth symphony, his symphonic style now and thereon distinctly influenced by that of Gustav Mahler.  The Symphony No. 4 was set to be given its première later in the same year of 1936, but it is said that a Party official summoned him and “strongly suggested” that he withdraw it.  He did, and that was the end of the work for another twenty-five years.  And all of this leads to the Symphony No. 5.

            There are few major musical compositions in all the repertoire that so profoundly speak, not only to the question of independence, integrity, and honesty of the artist himself, but also to the fundamentals of life, death, freedom, and sufferings of peoples.  Written in 1937, and given its première about a year after the ill-fated Symphony No. 4, it was in a new, more conservative style, and was famously, disingenuously referred to by the composer as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism.”  All true—except for the “just.”  It was an immediate success, and as we shall see, for a variety of reasons, depending upon the respective perspectives of individual listeners.

            The first movement opens with a jagged up-and-down motive, followed by a little, hesitating stepwise descent.   These elements will dominate the entire movement, and accompany a variety of other ideas, but will always be discernable, no matter what their guise.  The second main idea is a lyrical, soaring tune, but just as melancholy as the first ones.  Throughout, the movement’s pace is somewhat slow, even plodding, as it seems to start and stop with an innate fitfulness.  Nothing seems to be resolved, even at the end.   Later a repetitive “tum-ta-ta” accompaniment brings some motion to the dark lyricism, followed in the middle section by an absolutely malevolent, threatening march, begun by a staccato thumping low in the piano, and a low descending line in the unison brass—sounding about as evil and foreboding as brass possibly can.  It all just reeks of an overweening, suffocating totalitarian oppression.  The climax of this jackboot march is huge, followed by a recapitulation that covers the material from the opening, somewhat in reverse order.   The unison strings make a last impassioned outcry that is almost human in its vocal quality, rather like a desperate recitative.  The low brass and timpani literally hammer out the opening motive, followed by a brief phony moment of putative happiness in the woodwinds.  But truth dispels it, and the whole affair ends ominously with the trumpets playing a key, unifying interval over an incongruous little scale in the celesta.  Whatever Shostakovich had in mind as “response to just criticism,” this surely is not it, and totters closely to spitting on it.  If the symphony had ended here, so probably would have the composer’s life.   

            The second movement is no closer to what the Soviet censors surely had in mind, for it is a raucous parody for certain.  Remember, the composer had lots of experience writing for the circus, ballets, and the movies, and it all comes out, here.  It’s a grotesque waltz in the best tradition of Gustav Mahler, who had become an important influence on Shostakovich.  Begun in the low strings, the dance moves like a kaleidoscope through the orchestral colors, featuring almost every instrument and section, not forgetting even the contrabassoon.  And, as in the first movement, the meaning here is not clear at all.  “Cheeky” is perhaps the best descriptor—it’s certainly not a celebration of new tractors on the collective farm.

            The slow movement is epic.  While there have been a legion of compositions with the appellation, “tragic,” attached, this one certainly vies for the honor of the most appropriately so.  The première saw the audience literally in tears; so immediate was the music to the tragedies that almost every family was enduring, as Stalin’s purges relentlessly murdered millions of Soviet citizens in a mindless massacre.  No brasses intrude here, the movement being carried mainly by a lush, subdivided string section, with a few poignant woodwind moments from time to time.  Low reflective strings open, followed by delicate flutes and harp, and the mood is set.  From time to time a very special sound is heard, one that everyone in the Russian audience would recognize, and that is the imitation of the deep basso choral voices of the Russian Orthodox Church.   This bit of solace appears first in the strings, and then later in the low woodwinds.  The tension and grief build, as the violins ascend, and the low strings descend, accompanied by haunting voices in the piano.  After this shriek of grief, there is nothing but resignation, as it all subsides.  Capitulation and atmospherics creep in, ending with pianissimo, shimmering strings that accompany soft harp and celesta reflections.  The sadness is palpable, and yet, still no sign from the composer of “conciliatory” thoughts about the oppressive regime.

            So where does this leave us?  Shostakovich has one more movement left in which to make major amends to the thought police, and posterity has generally conceded that he did so, but only in terms of that specific time and place.   Otherwise, posterity has wrangled endless what the true meaning of the end of the symphony is, and what was in the composer’s mind at the conclusion.

            It all starts as a foreboding, dramatic march that is not at all cheerful.   The stentorian brass accompanied by hammering timpani announce a main tune, which is thoroughly worked through, section after section relentlessly, gradually increasing in tempo.   At the quickest tempo the trumpet announces a somewhat happier melody and the whole turns for briefly to the major, followed by a dramatic slowing and softening accompany a noble, lyric solo in the horn.  After some tranquil ruminations with woodwind solos, a high, very soft, ostinato in the violins leads to a winding sensuous line simultaneously in the high violins and octaves below in the low strings.   That sets up a return to the dynamic, opening march theme, but now it “sneaks” in, in a contrapuntal texture.  It builds to a thunderous stack of increasing dissonant harmonies until the huge chord dissipates, and the ultimate triumphal moment arrives:  clear, tonal, happy, D major!  The brass exult, accompanied by fortissimo timpani, like a hammer driving nails.  But, as the splendid trumpets ascend in their triumph, there is one very loud Parthian shot.  They land on a very loud, high Bb—a note “borrowed” from the parallel minor key.  Most everyone has interpreted this dramatic touch as Shostakovich’s very personal way of making totally ambiguous the “triumph” of the symphony and of the regime.  A brutal fortissimo unison and even louder hammering from the timpani ends it all.  So . . . what was the composer’s intent?  Did he capitulate, finally, in the last movement, and this a true move to a more positive world, OR is the offending Bb just typical Shostakovichian pungency?    At the time the censors were happy, the audience was happy, and so apparently was Shostakovich—only openly, though.  A great work of art is like an onion, layered with meaning.  Shostakovich’s symphony offers a plethora of individual interpretations; take away your own.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan