Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

Of all of Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies, the towering, gripping Fifth is both the most frequently performed, and one of the musical works about which the most critical, analytical, and explanatory ink has been spilt. The urge to use the music of Shostakovich to draw parallels between Soviet political repression, and any injustice that seems relevant to the time and place where his music is performed, is neither superfluous nor unjustified: Shostakovich’s music, and the Fifth Symphony in particular, has always been both politically motivated and politically received. However, in just what way it was politically motivated, and in what spirit it ought to be received, is one of the most hotly contested questions of twentieth-century music.

What we know for certain is that the period in Shostakovich’s life before and during the composition of the Fifth was a turbulent one. In early 1936, the composer was enjoying the success of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District:his bloody, sex-soaked operatic adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novella of the same name. The opera was so popular that there were three productions running concurrently in Moscow in January of 1936, when Joseph Stalin attended a performance.

The dictator left early. Two days later, an editorial with no byline appeared in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, denouncing Lady Macbeth. “The ability of good music to enthral the masses has been sacrificed on the altar of petit-bourgeois formalism,” the author— reasonably assumed to be Stalin himself, or a writer directed by him— warned. “This is playing at abstruseness - and such games can only finish badly."

The opera closed abruptly, and rehearsals for Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, already in progress, were called off. (Whether this was the composer’s initiative, the orchestra management’s insistence, or some combination of both, is unknown.) He kept a packed bag by his bed in readiness for a night-time knock from the secret police.

By November 1937 the premiere of the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich’s next move as a composer was ready to define him politically and historically. Would he rise up against the requirement that Soviet artists treat no other subject but the triumph of the proletariat? Or would he fall into line as a socialist artist in service of the state?

It is perhaps the Fifth Symphony’s greatest triumph that eighty-two years later, audiences, musicians and historians are still arguing over which path he took. The public received the piece as an expression of their suffering under the Soviet regime; officials took it as evidence that Shostakovich had been reformed into an ideologically pure socialist artist. “Glory be to our people which procreates such talents,” wrote Aleksey Tolstoy. “Today we have ten masters, tomorrow there will be hundreds. Soviet art is world art, it must be world art!”

Shostakovich himself— in memoirs which are, like so many pieces of this story, of questionable authenticity— supposedly described the triumphant-sounding final movement as his rebuke to the authorities: “The rejoicing is forced, created under threat…It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “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.”

Like the political and social situations it (perhaps) describes, our reception of the Fifth Symphony is still shifting today: uncomfortable, disturbing and vital.