Listening Beyond the Notes

Eddie Bernasconi delves deeper into Shostakovitch’s provocative 5th Symphony

Whether a hymn for Stalinist political victory, or a parody of one, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony is perhaps one of the most provocative musical works ever to be composed. Its significance and the degree to which we consider it to be a work born from political pressures, demands reflection of the exceptional circumstances in which the symphony was composed.

Following the performance of his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, in 1936, the USSR newspaper Pravda published an article, believed to be written by Stalin or at his command, titled: “Muddle Instead of Music”. The article denounced Shostakovich’s musical treatment for ignoring the demands of Soviet culture, labelling it as ‘formalist’, a term commonly used to label works and artists who did not conform to the party regime. For Shostakovich, to be accused of such things not only jeopardised his future ability to compose, but more distressingly, painted him as an agitator of soviet ideals. In 1937, Stalin was imposing his iron will on all parts of Soviet life, forcing artists to create soviet style works at the expense of their own artistic freedom. To act otherwise would be to risk persecution. Within his own close circle, Shostakovich could already list friends and family that had been imprisoned or executed, so it is no surprise that Shostakovich kept a suitcase at the front door packed for his inevitable arrest.

With this in mind, Shostakovich knew he had to return to favour with Stalin, and the approachability of his 5th Symphony was the ideal musical response to lead to his artistic rehabilitation, even if it meant withholding his 4th Symphony which had been written in 1936 (although not performed until 1961). In crafting the 5th, Shostakovich faced the dilemma of delicately balancing his own inhibitions to compose new advancing and innovative scores while simultaneously abiding by Stalin’s demands that all cultural works be created to inspire and unite the Soviet people with uplifting messages, much in the way of Tchaikovsky’s rich, familiar style and thematic-based music which had dominated Russia’s music industry over the previous 50 years.

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