Dmitri Shostakovich completed his fifth symphony, entitled “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism” in 1937, after a turbulent decade. The earlier success of his first symphony and his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtesnsk District, which had attracted international acclaim, had turned sour when Stalin criticized the opera and Pravda branded Shostakovich a bourgeois formalist who had lost himself in musical chaos. In an era of show trials and mass executions, Shostakovich feared for his life and his family’s safety. He withdrew his fourth symphony, which had run contrary to the optimism and Soviet Realism of the regime, and shortly afterwards began work on the fifth. More conventional in structure andinstrumentation and classical in feel, the work was extremely popular and ensured Shostakovich’s rehabilitation.

Despite yielding to the cultural preferences of the regime with regard to the overall structure of the work, the style is undoubtedly and distinctively that of the composer of the earlier, more unconventional pieces, and much of the music is subtly critical of the State. There’s a very good example in the first minute or so – the formal moderato in the violins is taken up by other sections, and the violins descend into chromatic atonality that weakens the overall key of D Minor, all of which can very sensibly be interpreted as representation of the undermining of the System. Shostakovich also worked in a fair degree of irony, quoting extensively from the style of the French baroque. This formalism, when declared as approved Soviet Realism, draws an obvious comparison between the Soviet apparatchiks acting in the name of the Revolution and the Baroque monarchs acting in the name of the grace of God.

The first movement is quite tragic, and at its climax quite terrifying. A funeral march-type rhythm, played at double speed, develops into a threatening and mechanical march of full brass and timpani, with swirling and chaotic strings and winds beneath. The peak, reached with most instruments playing near the top of their range, is followed by a powerful and near-unison descent, the loudest moment in the symphony, which then drops in dynamic to the soft and now slow funeral march. The movement concludes with a solo Celeste, a hollow, isolated, sad and beautiful sound.

The second is brash, a coarse scherzo version of a Minuet started with thundering bass and cello. Folkish elements of solo violin and flute emerge, with pizzicato accompaniment from the strings, but it can all sound very insincere, even mocking. Depending on the interpretation, the movement can sound anything from cute to vicious.

The third, a Largo, is probably the finest piece of music Shostakovich had written up to this point in his career. Brass and percussion are entirely absent, giving the movement a much more introverted and personal feel. It ranges in mood from early calm detachment, with soft solo strings and occasional flute and clarinet, to a terrible and incredibly powerful outpouring of grief at the climax, where the full strings together produce a sound as overwhelming as the brass chorales of the first movement, but far more eloquent. The climax is also accompanied by the slightly bizarre addition of wooden xylophone, each note in unison with the melody yet somehow jarring with it. There are some beautiful and very emotional solos, particularly for the cello section. The movement closes with the same sadness and serenity as the first.

The final movement is a remarkable contrast to the eloquence and control of the Largo. The movement has the surface optimism required to appease the regime, but it is too fast, too loud, too grand, too powerful, too triumphant. It sounds at best bombastic and exaggerated and at worst arrogant and brutish by the end. There are some sections of peace, with solo strings and harp providing calm and reflection, but these are quickly snatched away, usually with slightly menacing snare drum. The conclusion is optimistic, but that does not save it from being threatening – it is the optimism of someone who really shouldn’t be winning.

I once played this symphony in a concert for the Sydney Jewish Museum, along with slides from the Holocaust. It didn’t work so well a lot of the time, I felt the connection between the symphony and this event was strained, and that number 13 would have been a much better match. One slide, however, was perfect – for the final minute or so of the symphony, the march of the brass over a climbing unison string section, on the screen was a newly elected Adolf Hitler climbing the stairs of the Reichstag. Admittedly this too had nothing to do with what Shostakovich had originally written about, but it captured the feel of the music perfectly. Even if half the audience didn’t understand it. We got complaints for glorifying Hitler, showing him coming to power while playing such triumphant music. I felt like screaming “DON’T YOU GET IT?? DIDN’T YOU HEAR WHAT WAS WRONG WITH IT?”

Admittedly there’s nothing terribly obviously wrong with it. It’s not like the atonality of the beginning. It just sounds ever so subtly wrong. Absolutely typical Shostakovich at his best.

Sources: Various conductors, all of whom I can only remember by their first name, and sometimes not even that. Most of it came from a big tall Californian flute-playing dude with a paunch, curly grey hair and an extremely loud voice who kept giving us prep talks on what a weird little guy Shostakovich was. Unfortunately, I can't remember his name, but he rocks. If he happens to be on E2, thank you for the info *bows*