Symphony of Politics: Shostakovich’s Fifth

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) was a Russian composer crafting works in the era of the Second World War and Stalin’s reign. This makes for some intense and interesting stories on how his music was received. His First Symphony came at the end of his studies in the academy, but his fame initially came from ballet and opera. Shostakovich wanted to breakthrough and compose a great Symphony. His first three were definitely innovative. However, they didn’t quite make the cut for being as legendary as Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Shostakovich was writing his Fourth Symphony around the same time famous opera “Lady MacBeth” was being performed. The opera was finished in 1934 and was a hit. Stalin was interested in the arts, and since “Lady MacBeth” got such great reviews he decided to go check it out. He was disgusted with what he heard! This was not what music should be in his mind and he ordered this article “Muddle Instead of Music” to be written to tear the opera apart. The remaining performances of the opera were canceled.

The Soviet’s had a Composer’s Union that generally thought Shostakovich was an exceptional writer (because he was), but now they were very critical of the rising composer and his upcoming Fourth Symphony. It was criticized for being too radical and vulgar. They said it wasn’t true art. Shostakovich had to cancel the 1936 premiere. The symphony did not get performed until 1961(eighth years after Stalin’s death).

Scholars debate whether the Fourth Symphony had political themes or just wasn’t what the Composer’s Union wanted to hear. The answer to that is still unclear, but even if he wasn’t intending to be political the Fourth was still full of radical musical sounds that his critics just couldn’t stand.

Luckily Shostakovich’s reputation and skills gave him one more chance to compose a symphony. This piece had to be the ultimate patriotic statement. Stalin wanted music to promote Russian Nationalism and demonstrate his “Life has become merrier! Your business is rejoicing!” narrative. Shostakovich needed to write a piece that sounded like the old classics and got the listener to feel proud to be a member of the Soviet Union.

There was little room for error. Stalin loved the arts and wanted music he could relate to. This piece was definitely more accessible than his Fourth Symphony. He got the OK from the Composer’s Union and went on to premiere the work with the Leningrad Symphony in 1937. The symphony was assigned the subtitle, “The Practical Answer of a Soviet Artist to Justified Criticism.”

The symphony has four movements, but we are going to focus on the last movement. This music starts in a minor, or dark, key, and ends in a major, or light, key. It demonstrates victory. We have put up the good fight and won. Shostakovich was successful in creating a symphony that was both innovative, but also exactly what the Soviet regime wanted to hear. The first performance got a 37 minute ovation!

Shostakovich wrote a masterpiece that made up for his previous mistakes.

Or did he?

Different conductors perform the ending of the symphony at very different speeds.

When we hear the conclusion in its fast state it sounds like a celebration. The music is exciting and full of trumpets and percussion having at it. Some composers take these same notes, however, and drastically slow this down. Take the same “Life has become merrier! Your business is rejoicing!” text and place it alongside a slow version of the piece’s finale.

What happens?

It becomes this bitter, sarcastic statement. This is part of why the piece is so interesting. Scholars actually have arguments over whether Shostakovich was trying to please the Soviets, criticize the Soviets, or neither! Many argue that he just wrote music that didn’t have a political message.

Mstislav Rostropovich (National Symphony conductor and friend of Shostakovich) takes the finale at a much slower speed. He believed it was a painful statement. We listen to these same trumpets and percussion instrument playing the same notes, but at this speed it morphs the music from triumph to torture.

Loud music and happy, or major, sounds get the listener excited. The sound of Leonard Bernstein conducting the final moments of the symphony fill the listener with joy. Fast versus slow music does not necessarily mean happy versus sad music, but in this case Rostropovich is drawing on Shostakovich’s sarcasm.

Stalin got the musical notes and sounds he wanted to hear. “Life has become merrier! Your business is rejoicing!” These words come out throughout the orchestra, and Rostropovich would argue that a different speed does not change the words, but rather what they mean.

Are the people actually rejoicing? Or are they being forced into celebration like pawns because they know defying the government is unacceptable? It becomes a sarcastic statement where perhaps Shostakovich says, “Life has become merrier because you say so. The people are rejoicing as you have demanded.”

Does this difference in speed make you respond to the music differently? For many it doesn’t hold any political significance. However, to Rostropovich and those who share his view, engaging with this piece becomes a heavy emotional experience. There’s no celebration. The music just ends with tragedy.

Check out these two versions of the last movement from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. See how the different takes on the same music makes you feel. Let me know what you think, and thanks for taking the time to read this!

The FAST Leonard Bernstein Finale
The SLOW Mstislav Rostropovich Finale