I listened to his first and wrote about it (embarrassingly and unprofessionally) quite a while back (it’s at the top of the list for a revisit along with Rachmaninoff’s third, a Prokofiev symphony, and some Myaskovsky pieces), but I wasn’t as enthralled about it as I am this one. Perhaps it’s because his first was basically just homework. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but it was his graduation thesis or project or something.
It was for school.
This one, though, was to save his career, and potentially his life. There’s quite a bit of context to put this all in perspective, so read up on Socialism and the history of 20th century Russia and let me know when you’re done.
Before we get to the history (and since you’ve already read about it), and since I don’t know where else to put this, it goes here. I chose Rostropovich’s recording because… I like it the most. He observes the slower tempo at the end of the fourth movement, which I love, and Maazel/Cleveland, while the other three movements are wonderful and the sound is perfect, does not do that. He is a close second, though. I also have Barshai/WDR Symphony, and it isn’t bad, and I haven’t listened enough to Järvi’s recording with Gothenburg Symphony to comment, which is sad, because I quite like him. But Rostropovich nails it here.
Okay, so basically Shostakovich had Socialist ideals to uphold. He was a representative, a spokesman, but he was also an artist devoted to his craft. Many people associate him with quite modern 20th century works, and his ballet The Limpid Stream and his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District were not only panned by (also Socialist puppet) critics, they went against the fundamental stylistic ideas of Socialist realism, which you can read about in your spare time. These pieces were complicated and difficult to understand, but more damningly, not representative of what Wikipedia describes as “glorify[ing] the roles of the meek and working class and the struggle for its emancipation.” I haven’t done tons of research here, but I feel I am not too far off in saying the general consensus was that Shostakovich’s music was too highbrow and extremist and not idealistically Russian enough for them. That same article also refers to styles that existed before the revolution being viewed as “decadent bourgeois art” and that socialist realism was “a reaction against the adoption of these ‘decadent’ styles.” It seems to me like art became, not about personal expression and the (individual) human experience, but rather
exemplifying all that was Socialist in efforts to build an ideal, to construct a mindset or an entire existence where there wasn’t a hole in the muslin that anyone inside could peep through and think something out there was better. That’s what it sounds like to me, but I’m not a historian, nor am I super familiar with that history, nor do I care for politics.
In any case, some of Shostakovich’s friends went missing (forever), someone who he confided in, a long-time supporter of his named Mikhail Tukhachevsky, was a high-ranking officer in the Red Army, and even he was convicted on trumped up treason charges and shot. Shostakovich was working on his fourth symphony, especially under Mahler’s influence from his fourth symphony (the score [perhaps piano reduction] was mentioned to have been seen at the composer’s piano). He had finished composing and was in rehearsals for the premiere, when it was suddenly cancelled and retracted. Shostakovich had apparently been informed that he was in serious danger had he proceeded with the piece, so he took it back and cancelled the performance.
With the spotlight on him to take his next move carefully, he wrote his fifth symphony, and at once garnered praise and glory from his fellow ‘comrades’ as well as from the laypeople who knew (or perhaps felt) exactly what Shostakovich was trying to convey. This symphony, more than any other I’ve ever listened to, expresses different things from different angles; it is dichotomous and contradictory, and takes on a different form with a different approach to it. The four movements are by turns scathing, sarcastic, violent, humorous (darkly), painful, hopeful, angry, resentful, resilient, and defeatist. Let’s take a look at them one by one.
This is a symphony that gives me chills almost throughout the entire piece. Without trying to be dramatic or cliche, it is what pain and perseverance and oppression and hope sound like.
It opens richly with minor sixths, instantly kind of…. In your face. The first and fourth movements are (I suppose somewhat naturally) the most varied in form and content and scope. This is a big, intense movement. It sets the stage for the entire piece, obviously, and is incredibly varied. The idea of the jumping sixths (later minor thirds) and then sevenths and octaves kind of stays, but there are gorgeous passages like the beginning with pure strings where it’s almost beautifully serene if it didn’t sound ominous and foreboding. It truly is beautiful, especially in contrast with the intensity of the opening, and then the oboe and bassoon enter, and they add the color to the strings that make it as mournful and melancholy as it had been suggesting. It’s tender and delicate, and then the opening theme jumps back in over the previous one. This movement has a lot going on. It’s tumultuous, as is, I suppose the period in the composer’s life (and the country) at the time. Horns enter at about three and a half minutes and it sounds almost heroic for a brief moment. There’s a lot of material introduced here, and maybe that’s why it feels unstable and tumultuous; whatever it is, it’s amazing. I feel like the act of trying to describe it in words is doing it an injustice. The solo oboe line earlier along with the delicate piccolo at the end, followed by the violin, are so delicate and sorrowful. It’s gorgeous and painful, and slightly eerie, with the brass in the background, and the celesta echoing out into what ends up being a hollow, expansive, dark, quiet, almost disturbingly serene conclusion. It almost feels like everything hangs in the air for a long while before things should be allowed to continue. And boy do they.
The second movement is a violent, darkly comical, lively but still unsettling scherzo. It’s almost grotesque in a way. It is grays and dark blues and it’s kind of crunchy and strident. Tempos vary here, but I prefer a slightly faster pace, as a more dragging tempo makes the movement feel more torpid and lifeless, and there’s already enough of that in the piece. This is the shortest movement of the work, and it holds its place in the sequence as a slight break, not emotionally, because it’s still heavy, but it’s just a (literal) change of pace. It is powerful and driving, and puts the third movement in even greater contrast when we get to its sprawling, open, searing, expansive, heartbreaking expression. The second movement is strong and commanding, relentless. It has bite. It is fun, but in a frightening sort of way. There are delicate little sections where the violin plays the melody by itself in a moment of peace, followed by the flute, and it’s here where we can take a breath. It’s the trio, I suppose. I really love this movement. It’s just stunning writing. Also, there’s a delightful contrabassoon bit here toward the middle where that low, rumbly sound that you hear from the instrument itself ratting is put to perfect use with a textured, crunchy melody accompanied later by pizzicato strings. This movement is wonderful, but it ends as abruptly as it started, and when it does, we’ve in those short five and a half minutes, built up a lot of momentum, and it comes to a grinding halt with the third movement.
These two movements stand in direct contrast to one another, but it’s sort of the third that holds one of the most critical parts in the plot of this piece, whether you’re looking at it from the socialist modernism perspective or the human one. The official stance was that this was the stage in the metamorphosis where the artist made the needed transformation, while for the humans in the audience, it was mourning the tragic loss of a family member, a friend, a loved one as a result of the political climate and the exact same movements that Shostakovich was supposed to be supporting. This movement is tragic and heart wrenching, delicate but powerful and moving. It has a somber, elegiac feel, one of a funeral procession, not wholly engulfed in sorrow, but dignified, heads held high, feeling hopeless but undeterred. It’s expansive and broad. Again, solo woodwinds play important voices here between the passages that are pure strings. This makes the movement feel solitary, lonely, and weeping. The lonely ringing of the celesta at the end is one of the most haunting things I’ve ever heard in music, and it really does give pause. But again, lulled into the quiet dreamy yet nightmarish landscape, we are shocked back into the fourth movement.
If the third is the formation of a personality, the fourth, then, is a celebration of the artist’s success and reformation, but again, to those with souls and feelings, it is just the mockery of such rejoicing. With its fanfares and marches and ‘happier’ elements, it sounds cheerful (barely) on the surface, but there are dissonances and textures within that betray that celebration. It is violent in a similar way to the second movement, but with a distinctly more driving, relentless tempo. While the second had some play and sarcasm and wit to it, this is intensely powerful. It opens strongly with heavy timpani pulses followed by gnarly brass. The whole orchestra joins in over a repeated note in the brass that serves as the heartbeat of the passage, and it’s…. I can’t think of another word besides driving. It’s busy and fast. Intense. There are moments of harmony where it seems almost happy, and this is certainly the ‘celebration’ that the official view of the symphony needed to have, but there’s a persistence that also shows up. Some echoes of the previous movements appear, and there’s a happy, rejoicing face to the movement, but its exuberance is matched by a whirlwind energy that is less than 100% positive. There’s a moment to breathe mid-movement where strings float us along more peacefully, and this quiet, less intense middle section slowly builds up to the perfectly suitable climax. The mood changes to something (perhaps fittingly) militaristic with timpani and snare drum, and the last four or five minutes are what I would consider an ostinato, maybe not a true ostinato, but a major line is repeated over and over and over and over and over again and built upon each time. It’s gorgeous and driving and persistent. It builds to a climax about two minutes before the piece ends, and it ALMOST sounds positive but it’s almost as if the strings get stuck in a rut like on a disc that skips, playing a repeated D major unrelentingly through to the very end of the piece, kept time to by the beating (musically and physically) of the timpani, like in the guts of a ship to keep time. And then it’s over. And you can breathe.
I wanted to quote the following in bits in pieces as I was addressing the respective parts, but I feel it’s better viewed as a whole. I take this directly from Wikipedia describing its official reception:
Official critics treated the work as a turnaround in its composer’s career, a personal perestroyka or “restructuring” by the composer, with the Party engineering Shostakovich’s rehabilitation as carefully as it had his fall a couple of years earlier. Like the Pravda attack at that time on the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the political basis for extolling the Fifth Symphony was to show how the Party could make artists bow to its demands. It had to show that it could reward as easily and fully as it could punish.
The official tone toward the Fifth Symphony was further set by a review by Alexei Tolstoy, who likened the symphony to the literary model of the SovietBildungsroman describing “the formation of a personality”—in other words, of a Soviet personality. In the first movement, the composer-hero suffers a psychological crisis giving rise to a burst of energy. The second movement provides respite. In the third movement, the personality begins to form: “Here the personality submerges itself in the great epoch that surrounds it, and begins to resonate with the epoch.” With the finale, Tolstoy wrote, came victory, “an enormous optimistic lift.” As for the ecstatic reaction of the audience to the work, Tolstoy claimed it showed Shostakovich’s perestroyka to be sincere. “Our audience is organically incapable of accepting decadent, gloomy, pessimistic art. Our audience responds enthusiastically to all that is bright, clear, joyous, optimistic, life-affirming.”
It’s almost sickening to read. And the public:
To fully understand the public success of the Fifth Symphony and how it resonated with audiences, musicologist Genrikh Orlov argues that the music has to be seen as an artistic portrayal of the time in which it originated. Shostakovich grew in the years preceding the symphony as both a master and a thinking artist-citizen. He did so together with his country and people, sharing their hopes, aspirations and fate, intensely scrutinizing everything going on around him… At the height of the Stalinist Terror, over half a million people were shot and another seven million despatched to the Gulag in just over a year’s time… During the first performance of the symphony, people were reported to have wept during the Largo movement. The music, steeped in an atmosphere of mourning, contained echoes of the panikhida, the Russian Orthodox requiem. It also recalled a genre of Russian symphonic works written in memory of the dead, including pieces by Glazunov, Steinberg, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. Typical of these works is the use of the tremolo in the strings as a reference to the hallowed ambience of the requiem.
For an audience that had lost friends and family on a massive scale, these references were apt to evoke intense emotions. This was why the Fifth Symphony was received and cherished by the Soviet public unlike any other work as an expression of the immeasurable grief they endured during Stalin’s regime.
That dichotomy of response to the same experience shows just how fantastically talented Shostakovich was, and what a fine line he walked to please both audiences. According to Rudolph Barshai, Shostakovich told him that a composer should have everything in his head first before he sets pen (not pencil) to paper, and that if you couldn’t do that, you weren’t a composer. Shostakovich knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish and he did it.
This makes me think again of something I mentioned when comparing Mahler’s second symphony to Sibelius’s third (only because it was the next thing I wrote about after falling in love with Mahler 2). They are so different. While Mahler took on everything in his symphony and addressed life and death and everything in between and after, Sibelius was, relatively speaking, minimalist and they are both beautiful, in different ways. Mahler almost overwhelms, while Sibelius amazes with clarity and simplicity. I talked in that post about working within limits and how it can produce a different kind of beauty from challenge.
Sibelius was working with a certain style. Shostakovich was trying to save his career and his life. He worked with limits and challenges that he had no control over. I mention this because someone somewhere I read on the interwebs commented to how beautiful Shostakovich’s works would have been had he not been limited or oppressed by a regime that wanted so badly for him to produce something to support their ideals. Did he comply? Yes. Did he cave? No. And yet he did so much more than than that. I would argue that not only in spite of oppression and sorrow and anger and resentment, but precisely because of it, did this piece ring true for those who are still in touch with the human experience and can feel emotion. This piece would not exist in this form had it not been for those very things that made their existence so hard. That is not to say it’s good they happened, but what resulted was a heartwrenchingly beautiful expression of emotion.
Seriously, just read the whole damn wikipedia article, because it talks about all of this, but a quote (attributed to the composer) to describe the very end of the piece, goes like this, and I think it perfectly sums up what is now one of my hands-down most favorite pieces of music, any genre, any era. It reads:
The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. 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.”