Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony

The period during which Shostakovich was active as both a young and middle-aged composer mirrored some of Soviet Russia’s darkest days, personified in the image of the dictator Joseph Stalin. Fear of the state and military oppression were rife in a time where every man was expected to bend to the will of the leading/ruling class in a travesty of Socialism forged by Lenin and parodied by Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Such was the influence of Moscow on the populace that every facet of life had to reflect the patriotic party line, the ramifications of not doing so being dramatic. This was especially pronounced in art and literature produced for public consumption. Works that could be construed as being subversive or intending to debase Soviet propaganda were quickly banned, their creators frequently being removed from the public eye.

Shostakovich was by turns lauded and denounced by both the government and its unofficial mouthpiece, the newspaper Pravda. His opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” initially found favour with both the critics and the government, being hailed as a worthy product of Soviet Socialism. The opera was performed satisfactorily until a damning piece appeared in Pravda proclaiming the work to be base and unworthy. The criticism continued with condemnation of Shostakovich’s ballet “The Limpid Stream” around the same time as Stalin’s infamous “Great Purge” began making its presence felt.

The fourth symphony of 1935-6 marked a new low in Shostakovich’s professional life, trying to carve a new compositional style for himself while keeping on the right side of the authorities. For a still-unknown reason, the fourth was withdrawn from public scrutiny and although completed was not officially premièred until 1961.

Such was the environment that the great composer found himself when work began on his fifth symphony. We now all know his supposed phrase “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism” although there are some that believe that the Pravda article that provided it might have been politically moulded by a hand other that the composer’s.

Any fears that Shostakovich might have had concerning the release of the fifth symphony were allayed when the work was well received by both the public and the Soviet administration with some praising it as a welcome return to the authority-sanctioned form.

Not as adventurous or challenging as some of his previous work, the fifth served two masters. Its references to Russian folk tunes and definite tonal romanticism providing Pravda and the Stalinist dictatorship with what they believed to be an ideally Soviet composition while mirroring the weight and the wider society’s need to express their feeling of desperation, for those that had ears to hear it. A feeling of anti-Stalinism was in the air and the fifth was interpreted in two ways according to the desires (or perhaps the social standing) of the listener.

The final movement, allegro non troppo, has caused the most obvious rift in opinion due to the disagreement of the composer’s intentions with the tempo marking in the last section. What some have ascribed to a printing error between a laboured but official quaver (eighth note) =184 against a jubilant but “officially” incorrect crotchet (quarter note) =184, effectively doubling the time of the crotchet notes and driving the music forward. Everything, the percussion, the brass, the strings, are given a boost and the perceived effect isn’t just the increase in speed. The whole dynamic is changed from an overall heavy and militaristic feel to one where the listener can rejoice in the light.

The two versions of the last movement, fast and slow, are frequently played, with the slower version seeming to be more popular, presumably because this has become the general consensus as to what the composer intended. The slower might do more to convey the oppressed feeling prevalent in early twentieth-century Russia but the faster is, to my ear, a much more satisfying and fitting finale to a magnificent symphony.

Not necessarily references, but a collection of documents read to confirm what I thought in writing this:

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