SS No. 64 | Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in d minor

by Glenn on October 22, 2017

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 5 in d minor, Op. 47

Allegro non troppo

first performance: 20 July 1937
Leningrad Philharmonic | Yevgeny Mravinsky

It’s challenging enough to be an artist. You need to get paid. And, ideally, you get paid from the act of creating the art itself. I suppose you could be independently wealthy or happy with your day job, so who cares if your art makes any money but, normally, as an artist you have an idea for this thing you want to create and your central challenge is to get someone to pay for it or, at the very least, pay attention to it. Which means you don’t exist in a vacuum. You live with this tension of “I want my art to be true to myself” and “I need to people to like ‘my’ art”. Your art must please someone. Or, as Bob Dylan said it so profoundly, “You’ve got to serve someone.” That’s the realm where the artist who is paid for his work largely functions.

In the case of Dmitri Shostakovich, you overlay that economic scenario with a difficult political environment and it makes your job not just more difficult, but potentially dangerous.

Shostakovich pulled his Fourth Symphony during rehearsals. He had been criticized formally in 1936 by the Soviet Government for some of his works. “Criticized” isn’t quite right, though. I think some combination of “accused” and “threatened” is closer to the reality.

Four months after he retracted his Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich began work on his Symphony No. 5, which he completed in just three months. Michael Steinberg writes, “Its completion and the jubilant embracing of it by the public constituted the most significant turning point in the composer’s artistic life.”

Shostakovich seemed to hit it just right with this work. Someone (not Shostakovich) referred to the Fifth Symphony as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” In 1938 Shostakovich was “rehabilitated” politically. (He would have one more, and longer, episode beginning in 1948, where he would be attacked more viciously than he was in 1936 and wouldn’t be rehabilitated until 1958.)

Steinberg says that more important than his getting back in good graces with the government of the Soviet Union, with the Fifth Symphony Shostakovich “found a language in which, over the next three decades, he could write music whose strongest pages . . . reveal his voice as one of the most eloquent in our time.”

Of the Shostakovich symphonies I’ve heard so far, this is the one most obviously in the tradition of Mahler. In fact, there is a moment roughly 4 minutes in that has a kind of soaring Mahlerian exultation:

And the fact that Shostakovich goes away from it so quickly also feels Mahlerian.

*  *  *

I was really looking forward to hearing this and it didn’t disappoint. My experience with Shostakovich so far has been a mixed bag. The First Symphony, which we heard live, was really interesting. The Fourth and Eighth Symphonies I didn’t quite resonate with immediately and I’m not sure if and when I’ll listen to them again.

With the Fifth I had a positive experience years ago when I played an arrangement of the last movement in an arrangement for concert band. It’s pretty exciting music. I know I’ve listened to the original symphonic version in its entirety, but I couldn’t say when.

I really enjoyed this hearing this again. The liner notes offer an explanation for why:

“The Fifth Symphony’s deeply dramatic musical language is the natural outgrowth of the works that immediately preceded it, including Lady Macbeth, the Fourth Symphony and the Cello Sonata, while its formal style harks all the way back to the First Symphony.”

Royal S. Brown, who wrote the above, calls the Fifth Symphony a culmination of form and emotion, a large orchestra playing broad themes with “highly colouristic harmonies” demonstrating “considerable emotional depth.” That seems to be my sweet spot for the kind of symphonies I enjoy listening to.

For this symphony, I turned to a recording by the New York Phiharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. (CBS Records Masterworks | MK 35854 | P 1980 CBS Inc.).

This is a live recording, which is an asset. You only hear the audience momentarily at the end of each movement. And an audience can bring (as I believe it has in this case) a level of energy to a recording from a concert hall that is difficult to replicate in the studio.

The playing is magnificent. I was especially impressed by the flute playing—impossibly long lines. And not too much evidence of the conductor on the recording. Bernstein is known to add some occasional extraneous percussive foot stomping from time to time.


The first movement is the longest. The ratio of movements for this symphony: 3.5 : 1 : 3 : 2. The length of the entire symphony as played on this recording is 49′.

The symphony opens with two themes that Shostakovich will play with for the entire movement. Here is the opening of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

It’s hard to avoid two associations right up front, one appropriate and one completely ridiculous and unfortunate. The first association is with Beethoven. The opening figure of Shostakovich’s Fifth seems like an allusion to the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. That final movement is so fast, but then there is this strange moment where the mood shifts (beginning about 15″ into this clip).

It appears to me that Beethoven planted a seed that Shostakovich would take and plant in his own garden. Steinberg doesn’t discuss any sort of connection. Perhaps it’s too obvious or there are too many instances like this in classical music or it’s too much of a stretch.

The other association comes from that second part of that opening of Shostakovich’s Fifth. It reminds me very much of the theme song of a 70’s television show.

It’s hard to get past this, but happily, as the symphony unfolds I don’t think about it as much.

Shostakovich takes us so many places in this movement. With just those couple of simple figures that dominate this movement, Shostakovich offers an aural landscape of inventive orchestration (I particularly like the use of the piano) and constant mood shifts—from dark to light, tender to forceful, dense to spacious, minor to major. There is that soaring passage that I referred to earlier that sounds like Mahler. There is a fugal section that is so inventive, but Shostakovich doesn’t stay with it—the transformation of that passage is powerful. Near the end of the movement comes a very stern, martial atmosphere that surrenders to a flute solo with horn counterpoint. Later a piccolo solo follows another flute solo. It’s quite tender. A remarkable movement.


A scherzo follows. The juxtaposition is right out of the Mahler playbook. There’s quite a bit of charm even though the music is often sarcastic, full of “grotesque humor” (Steinberg). Shostakovich uses the orchestra in all its mass and as a chamber group. This movement offers relief from the heaviness of the first movement. Steinberg calls it “an oasis between the intensely serious first and third movements.”


Slow and dark is the operating concept for this movement. This movement is for strings and winds alone—the brass are silent throughout. Steinberg describes an interesting compositional feature of this movement:

“The string scoring is unusual in that Shostakovich calls for three sections of violins rather than the usual two and two each of violas and cellos. … String sound dominates in this movement of beautiful, long melodies, and Shostakovich inserts intermezzi for solo woodwinds with exquisite sense of timing and form. … the movement ends with the serene sound of just two sumptuous major chords for the eight-part string orchestra.”

Much of this movement is quite still, but there are two big moments with the strings in full throttle. It’s striking as most of the time in orchestral music when strings are playing this hard you have the rest of the orchestra matching them (or completely drowning them out). You miss nuance and the expressiveness of the strings. The celeste at the end is magical.


The third movement was string dominant. The fourth is brass dominant. It’s not a big blow all the way through, but it’s a wonderful brass awakening. Most of all this music appears to be going somewhere. Unlike the Fourth and the Eighth, the Fifth feels like it’s on a trajectory. And the conclusion of the symphony is glorious—what Steinberg calls, in understatement, “its assertive finale (and Mahlerian) climax.”

For a second go-around, I listened to the Berlin Philharmonic in its Digital Concert Hall in a performance of 13 December 2014 conducted by Tugan Sokhiev. (I found three performances. I decided to listen to the one conducted by a Russian.)

This was a remarkable performance, although the conductor does a fair amount of humming along, which is a little distracting. He used a baton the first movement, but went without for the rest of the symphony.

The interesting part of this performance was the finale, taken at quite a bit slower clip than the Bernstein recording.

Steinberg has a lengthy passage devoted to the tempo and the affect of the finale. He writes, “The tempo that Shostakovich asks for in the coda is extremely slow, and very few conductors dare it.” (And, one wonders how many orchestras can pull it off convincingly. Great power without sounding strident or stressed. The Berlin Philharmonic is tremendous here.)

At the premiere, Shostakovich made this statement about this work (quoted by Steinberg):

“The theme of my symphony is the making of a man. I saw man with all his experiences as the center of the composition. … In the finale, the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and the joy of living.”

Okay, it’s a happy ending. But not so fast. Steinberg again quotes Shostakovich, this time from Testimony, published in 1979:

“Awaiting execution is a theme that has tormented me all my life. Many pages of my music are devoted to it. Sometimes I wanted to explain that fact to the performers. But then I thought better of it. You can’t explain anything to a bad performer, and a talented person should sense it himself. …

“I discovered to my astonishment that the man who considers himself its greatest interpreter* does not understand my music. He says I wanted to write exultant finales, but I couldn’t manage it. It never occurred to this man that I never thought about exultant finales, for what exultation could there be? I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat … 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.’

“What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that. …?

Yeah, I missed that. I appear to be in good company. Steinberg confesses,

“Well, there were a lot of us oafs around between 1937 and 1979. We may not, all of us, have been convinced by the ending of the Shostakovich Fifth, but I never knew anyone to doubt that this was a genuine attempt to write an ‘exultant finale.'”

His conclusion: Differences in tempo for the finale (which are wildly different from performance to performance) are “rooted in the attempt to make the ending jubliant, to perform the apotheosis that Shostakovich did not in fact compose.”  I think this is what Bernstein has done. If you take the ending at the marked tempo, the music is much more “grim,” which I think is true of the Berlin recording. Steinberg closes his essay with this sobering Shostakovich quote:

“The majority of my symphonies are tombstones.”

*  *  *

This was one of my favorite (so far) of the Steinberg essays. In the course of the superb analysis of the tempo issue at the end of the symphony, he cites a rule he attributes to D. F. Tovey, “the patron saint of all program note writers.” Steinberg writes, “The program annotator is always the counsel for the defense.” This, of course, explains why I have such different reactions to each symphony while Steinberg acts like a parent who, in great wisdom, refuses to indicate which of his 118 children he loves the best.


*A reference to the conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Yevgeny Mravinsky.