Dmitri Shostokovich (1906-1975) was one of the great composers of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest to emerge from the Soviet Union. His relationship with the Soviet government, especially Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, defined nearly every aspect of his life. He was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in the last years of tsarist rule in Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 came when Shostakovich was 11, but its influence stayed with him the rest of his life. His rise to fame came at the hands of an aid to Leon Trotsky, a father of the revolution. Shortly thereafter, Trotsky’s exile and the death of Vladimir Lenin left Stalin in charge, and he ruled with an iron fist and no patience for dissent or criticism of any kind. The arts were to reflect the official reality of Soviet existence, and thus “Formalist” works (that is, any work that displayed hints of modernism or abstract content) were at least frowned upon, if not banned outright. Shostakovich made something of a game of pushing as far towards this line as possible, sometimes even drifting past it. He was officially denounced by the regime twice, only to later rehabilitate his reputation through new, more apparently pro-Soviet works. At times the regime used him as a mouthpiece, and he seemed only too willing to comply. Yet his works often show signs of weariness or outright contempt for his government. His controversial memoir, Testimony, seems to confirm the notion that Shostakovich did not wish to support the Soviet regime. However, the memoir’s emergence 4 years after his death and the murky circumstances of its creation, not to mention its appearance at the height of the Cold War, all call into question its truthfulness. Still, Shostakovich undeniably made beautiful music, including 15 symphonies, an equal number of string quartets, large quantities of film music, and 2 operas which he held dear for his entire life.
Shostakovich wrote the Symphony no. 5 in 1937. He was under tremendous, even life-threatening pressure to do so after his previous major work, 1936’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, was decried as Formalist by Soviet authorities. The Symphony was his attempt to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the authorities while still speaking to the broader public. He succeeded mightily in both tasks. Government officials read the Symphony as the story of a Soviet man struggling within himself, only to see the light and become one with the Party in the end. Friends of Shostakovich and Western listeners, on the other hand, could hear Shostakovich pulling against the shackles of totalitarianism, especially in the final measures of the finale, with its seemingly false, stale optimism. The truth is nearly impossible to know, but it seems very likely that he intended to express some degree of discontent.
Interpretations of the tempos Symphony no. 5 vary widely, especially regarding those final measures of the finale. I present the finale as conducted by Mravinsky, who conducted the premieres of several Shostakovich symphonies, including the 5th. Given that, and that he conducted this at the Leningrad Conservatory when it was still called that, I can only think of his interpretation as sound and reflective of the time it was composed.
Now that that’s over with, here’s Leonard Bernstein doing the same movement with the New York Philharmonic. It’s a better performance on every level, although I would quibble the slightest bit with Bernstein’s final tempo – he goes too fast! But it’s very much worth a watch!
Now here’s the band version, played very well (if rather quickly at the end) by the United State Air Force Band of Flight:
The San Francisco Symphony deconstructs several key moments in the Symphony.