Unlike his famed compatriots and contemporaries Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich remained in Russia throughout his life: this made him the single great Russian composer of the Soviet period. His works have documentary value besides their purely musical worth, for they demonstrate how a composer could hold his own ground within a totalitarian regime.
There has been much speculation about Shostakovich’s exact relationship with the Soviet state. Whenever it suited him — or when it could not be otherwise — he composed the sort of laudatory socialist works that the Party demanded. The completely individual works that he also composed are just as revealing: some of these almost got him sent to a labour camp, others he withdrew or simply kept hidden. Exactly how much of a dissident Shostakovich was is in the end not particularly relevant; what is important, and this is what is particularly evident in the symphonies, is that he was continually walking a tightrope between self-expression and imposed restrictions. He very evidently held music — and a free spirit — to be much more important than did the state, with the result that he lived in a state of almost permanent spiritual tension. This internal conflict is clearly to be heard in the Fifth Symphony: it is music that on the surface seems to be marching with the troops, but that on a deeper level is seeking an escape.
The repression in Stalin’s Russia was particularly effective thanks to its arbitrariness: every freethinker, from scientists to artists, could become its victim from one day to the next. No wonder, therefore, that Shostakovich gradually became a withdrawn chain-smoking neurotic. Threats and intimidation against him were at their height when he began work on his Fifth Symphony in April 1937. Shostakovich’s uncle, his mother-in-law and his brother-in-law had disappeared without trace and his sister Mariya had been deported to a Siberian camp. The premiere of his Fourth Symphony had been cancelled on the advice of high-placed Party officials — the sort of advice that was accompanied by a casual wave of a leather glove. Shostakovich knew that every new work of his would undergo microscopic examination for irregularities, although he also knew what was expected of him. The requirements set out for him by the Composers’ Union, a cultural enforcement agency despite its fraternal-sounding name, demanded positive, heroic and uplifting music that was in keeping with the culture of the people. In practice, this meant that he was unable to do practically anything. A composition could quickly be found to be too dissonant, too pessimistic or too intellectual. The embargo on his Fourth Symphony was primarily due to the work’s depressive character.
The Fifth Symphony, however, seemed to provide exactly the triumphant music that the State demanded: serious moments alternated with playful ones and the work’s drama culminated in a celebratory final movement. Shostakovich here took Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as his example, the patriarch of heroic composition: this is music in which a symbolic battle is fought and the hero triumphs after much struggle. The Soviets identified themselves with such a hero completely, as he was a metaphor for the Russian people. The great majority were unable to see that the composer had actually portrayed himself as a dissident.
It was a journalist and not Shostakovich himself who termed the symphony 'the creative response of a Soviet artist to justified criticism'. This phrase, coined only days after the symphony’s successful premiere in Leningrad, stuck; Shostakovich did not oppose it. This appearance of obedience was exactly what he needed. The Fifth Symphony is therefore one of his key works: in it Shostakovich not only proved his compositorial skills — it is well-crafted and spectacularly orchestrated — but also his talent to speak to friend and foe alike. The music fulfilled the expectations of not only the authorities but also those of his fellow freethinkers. It is a piece that united his advocates and his opponents, although its atmosphere and expression are so indefinable and ambiguous that it could not be regarded simply as a courteous salute to those in power.
The symphony contains elements that could easily have not gone down well. A listener’s first impression of the symphony is one of overwhelming bleakness. The long first and third movements are the equal of the Fourth Symphony in sadness. Shostakovich also dared to quote a few themes from the Fourth casually; the symphony had never been performed and no-one would recognise them. Neither is the Fifth a characteristically Russian piece: the folkloric elements that the Composers’ Union preferred to hear were nowhere to be found. The entire work is instead clearly based on Western Classical formulae, with the influence of Shostakovich’s hero Gustav Mahler unabashedly present. Mahler too had made his difficult relationship with the outside world the subject of his musical works.
Shostakovich was, however, given the benefit of the doubt: the examination committee that gave the symphony its seal of approval praised the combination of tragedy and optimism; the musicologist Georgi Chubov pronounced that Shostakovich here 'appeared as a consciously realist artist for the first time. For the first time he had concerned himself in depth and seriousness with weighty philosophical problems. For the first time he had written for a wider public and took pains to express his thoughts in a simple and clear musical language'.
The musical argument is indeed much less complex than in the earlier symphonies. Its harmonies are more conventional and the melodic lines are clearly structured. Nonetheless, there is always something that stands out: in the first movement it is the stealthy staccato pattern in the strings, a sort of whispered adjuration with an insinuating violin melody. This unearthly beauty is short-lived: it is soon condensed into one of Shostakovich’s characteristic marches that inhabit a grey area between toughness and mockery. The same irony fills the Mahlerian Allegretto that follows: a rustic dance that should sound carefree but instead sounds lamed and ungainly.
The Largo caused many listeners to burst into tears at the work’s premiere. There were reasons enough for weeping in Stalin’s Russia and all who listened heard their own personal suffering reflected in this slow movement. It is almost archetypal music of lamentation, with echoes of Russian Orthodox liturgical chant. It can easily be understood why an American newspaper described the Fifth as not so much Soviet music but rather a symphony in the Slavic tradition of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Borodin.
Shostakovich quotes once more from himself in the Finale, using a fragment of his setting of Pushkin’s Rebirth. This too provided the Composers’ Union with proof that their prodigal son had repented and wished to reinvent himself. How optimistic is this dénouement? The music has sufficient energy and force to win through to victory, although it soon degenerates into mechanical patterns and grating chords. According to Msistlav Rostropovich, himself a Soviet émigré, the final movement sounds 'like a spear-point jabbing in the wounds of a person on the rack … Anybody who thinks the finale is glorification is an idiot – yes, it is a triumph for idiots.'
The symphony’s premiere in Leningrad was greeted with rapturous acclaim and a standing ovation from all present. The conductor Yevgeny Mravinski waved the score around in elation. The applause lasted for half an hour and only ceased when the lights in the auditorium were dimmed to send the audience home. Many expressed not only their enthusiasm for the symphony but also their solidarity with the composer; the State had pronounced its judgement on his 'dangerous, chaotic and unnatural' music only one year before. The Party heads had now been pacified by the accessibility of the Fifth and even more so by the composer’s seeming compliance; the phrase about Shostakovich’s 'answer to justified criticism' was printed in the programme for the first Moscow performance of the work. Even Shostakovich’s somewhat distant colleague Prokofiev reacted positively to the work, with clear allusions to the work’s ambivalence. 'Many passages pleased me, although it was very clear to me that the piece will not be valued for the right reasons; I believe that people have completely failed to realise why this symphony should be treasured. In any case it is good that there is finally something new after all the old-fashioned pieces of our composer colleagues. The true essence of this symphony will only be understood at a later date.'
Translation: Peter Lockwood