This is an interesting symphony
indeed and lies at the heart of the debate about Shostakovich
's political intent with his music. I even wrote my "Extended Essay" for the International Baccalaureate
Program in high school about the "Muddle Instead of Music
"/Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
incident and the effect it had on his Fifth
, though I couldn't find it before writing this.
There's no question that the symphony was meant to appease Stalin and the Soviet Party. Compared with the Fourth (which was not premiered until 1961 - well after Stalin's death), it is a clear return to classicism and the party's preferred (required) aesthetic of Soviet Realism. However, the mood is dark and the symbolism runs rampant. Militaristic marches are set to ominous backdrops and light folk melodies are juxtaposed in immediate proximity with bombastic blasts from low brass (perhaps a playing child wandering too close to the stomping boots of a Soviet soldier). The third movement ranges from tender introspection to heart-wrenching tragedy - I like to imagine a snowy house far away from the city as a man spends his last night with his family knowing the police will come for him soon. This is perhaps a more specific interpretation than the composer ever intended, but it was a fear he lived with for many years, often waiting up at night with his bags packed, especially during this period.
The one point of the symphony where my interpretation differs from those already mentioned on this node and the one about the composer himself is the coda of the finale. The notion that it represents a frenzied, even forced triumph for the Soviet party is a valid interpretation, as this is the way it was performed in the West in such notable recordings as Leonard Bernstein's - which Shostakovich was reported to have enjoyed very much. However, this interpretation actually stems from a misprint in the tempo of the coda in the original publication of the work. The original marking is not quarter note = 188 as it was printed, but rather eighth note = 188 - slow! This is the way most Russian conductors have always performed and recorded the piece, including Maxim Shostakovich, Dmitri's son, who has publicly corroborated the slower tempo.
Heard in this light, the message of the ending is transformed completely. The wild energy is gone, replaced by stern solidarity. The repeating A's in the strings are no longer the relentless whips of the authorities, but rather the determined footsteps of the people of a nation Shostakovich loved dearly. The minor sixth in the trumpet melody is held out in agony each time it rises against the fifth just a half-step below it, only to resolve at last in glorious exultation. The timpani are not war drums - they are heart beats, crying loud and strong, We are here, we are alive, and you'll never break the courage of our spirit! It's not a victory for Stalin's military regime - it is a victory of the persistence of the human spirit.
If you've not heard a recording with the slower coda, I'd highly recommend it. The version I have is Rudolf Barshai, and it's fine and inspiring, but I'm sure better recordings exist. Mravinsky has a well-reviewed recording, as do Rostropovich and Maxim Shostakovich among others. Cheers, happy listening!