Blogs > Jim Loewen > Meaning in 'Pure' Music: Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony

Feb 9, 2012

Meaning in 'Pure' Music: Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony

"Stalin" by Isaak Brodsky, ~1939

By the 1930s, however, the increasingly authoritarian Soviet regime felt increasingly threatened by its artists. Or maybe Stalin, et al., simply felt that they should determine what was done in the arts as in the economy as in the political life of the country.  In any event, by the 1930s, painting had pretty much been reduced to Socialist Realism. Abstraction was forbidden. Stalin kept his eye—all right, his ear—on music, too. Even though a symphony might seem by definition apolitical, neither Stalin nor the Soviet of Composers thought so.

The Terror was a deliberate attempt to smash conventional social relations, again to foster the new obedient Soviet Man.  In the Soviet Union of the '30s, children informed on their parents, workers on their co-workers, and lovers on each other. Meanwhile, like slaves in the Old South, everyone had to wear a grin. "It was essential to smile," recalled Nadezhda Mandelstam. "If you didn't, it meant you were afraid or discontented."  The U.S.S.R. became a nation of masks.

In 1936, Shostakovich became "the first musician to take a blow," in the words of Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, also the wife of cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. His opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk premiered to great popular acclaim at the Bolshoi.  A month later, Pravda, the official Communist newspaper, published a vicious attack on it titled "A Mess Instead of Music."  "The music quacks, moans, pants, and chokes," said Pravda.  Demanded was "Socialist Realism" in music, as in sculpture and the other arts. Stalin, who had attended and not liked the opera two days earlier, probably instigated the article. Certainly everyone thought he did. 

Shostakovich in 1942

In this atmosphere of terror, Shostakovich realized that not only his career but even his life were at stake. He responded eventually with his Fifth Symphony. Before its premiere, he called it "a Soviet artist's practical creative response to just criticism," or at least signed a statement containing those words.  He also gave a private premiere to Party officials at which he told them it ended "on a joyous, optimistic plane." They bought it. Party-line critics in the U.S.S.R. developed a Hamlet-like interpretation, in which the symphony celebrates the transformation of the hero, perhaps Shostakovich himself, from alienated individuality into a triumphant identification with the State. 

Many Western commentators bought this interpretation as well. The phrase, "a Soviet artist's response to just criticism," became something of a subtitle, and a millstone in the West. Taking that at face value, Western commentators for years were not sure whether it was a good thing that Western audiences liked the work so much. They called the symphony a concession to political pressure and an example of Socialist Realism. 

The audience at the world premiere of Symphony #5 in Leningrad heard the work very differently.  The first two movements are full of unpleasant repeated notes, sarcasm, and what Ian MacDonald calls a "Stalin motif." Then comes the largo, the heart of the symphony, its lyrical grieving slow movement. "Its intensity of feeling is more nakedly direct than anything the composer had written before," according to MacDonald. It comes across like a requiem, and it was during this movement that the audience began to weep. The final movement sounds triumphant, but only on its surface.  As Vishnevskaya put it in her autobiography, "beneath the triumphant blare of the trumpets, beneath the endlessly repeated A in the violins, like nails being pounded into one's brain—we hear a desecrated Russia..." She goes on to describe what happened next, at the premiere:

Each member of the audience realized that it had been written for him and about him. And the people reacted. They jumped from their seats shouting and applauding, and continued for half an hour, expressing their support for the composer....

A more complex view of Shostakovich surfaced after his death in 1975, particularly with the release of Solomon Volkov's book Testimony in 1979. Volkov claimed Shostakovich dictated or at least read every page. In his 1990 book The New Shostakovich, Ian McDonald summarizes the controversy about that claim. He concludes that Volkov got Shostakovich right overall, even if Testimony is not by the composer. 

I have long been interested in whether and how instrumental music, that most abstract art form, can convey ideas. Shostakovich's Fifth seemed to invite a test of some sort. Accordingly, some years ago I played it to a class of advanced undergraduates at the University of Vermont—not music majors but students in sociology and education.

I set it up as a lab experiment. One third of the students read program notes that described the symphony as Socialist Realism—the triumph of the New Man. Another third read notes based on from Vishnevskaya's memoir, describing the work as "a huge complex of human passions and sufferings." The final third received a neutral description, noting its four movements and telling about its instrumentation.

The entire "laboratory" was new to most of my students, who had never listened to a full symphony before. It's astounding to realize how insulated most young adults are today from classical music.  At the time (1994), the University of Vermont was the most expensive state school in the United States and drew a student body from the top end of the national income structure. They came largely from the suburbs of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Even from these elite families in metropolitan locations, many had never attended an orchestral concert. Not one in a hundred knew that Beethoven wrote an "Emperor Concerto." Nobody knew anything about Shostakovich. 

But they listened. Indeed, they listened well. When that final thundering tympani blast had faded to a distant echo, I asked them all to write down their impression of what the music was about. The third group, with neutral program notes, spoke first. To my surprise, they told of the anguish of the music, of passion and suffering, agreeing with the Vishnevskaya notes they had not seen. Indeed, even students who had received notes describing the symphony as a Socialist Realist triumph were converted by what they heard into a more tragic interpretation.

You can perform this experiment at home. Find someone you love—yourself, if you don't already know this symphony—and give them a CD of it—perhaps conducted by Rostropovich, a close friend of the composer. In the name of novelty or appreciation of another culture or Christmas, encourage them to listen to it, all the way through, doing nothing else, volume up high. Then ask them what it was about.

Modern Russian stamp commemorating Shostakovich

My hope is that they'll know, too, and that having heard it once, they'll want to hear it again. Why?  Because it happens in life that we all have terrible times—maybe not so bad as the Stalinist Terror, but tragic enough to us, all the same. Music that speaks honestly to us at such times is worth a great deal. Shostakovich obviously thought so—enough that he risked his life to give it to us. 


Copyright James Loewen

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