Welcome to a special edition of Explore the Score. I’ve told friends for years that some day I wanted to write a book about Shostakovich 5. Here’s the short version.
Dmitri Shostakovich- Symphony no. 5 in D minor opus 47
Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony would, at first glance, seem, on purely musical grounds, to be a most unlikely work to have become possibly the most hotly debated and discussed piece of classical music written in the 20th c.. Nonetheless, in the three quarters of a century since it was composed, it has never failed to divide opinion or inspire debate. It remains one of the few pieces of music that can still incite angry exchanges among performers or musicologists who have come to sharply divided conclusions about its importance, its originality and whether it ends in “triumph” or “forced rejoicing,” or, to put it simply, whether it has a happy or sad ending.
The piece was conceived under the most intense spotlight imaginable. Josef Stalin’s public denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in the essay “Muddle instead of Music” published in Pravda on the 28th of January,1936 had effectively turned Shostakovich into a strange combination of a non-person and “musical public enemy number one.” Shostakovich’s denunciation could not have come at a worse time- it was the very peak of the Stalinist Terror, and Shostakovich knew as soon as he saw the editorial that the lives of both he and his family were in grave danger. Artistically, this blow came at a terrible moment for the coposer. A former wunderkind who had become instantly world-famous when he published his First Symphony at the age of 19, by 1936, when “Muddle” was published, Shostakovich was a composer at the peak of his powers and early maturity, possessed of a breadth of experience to match his talent, and with his confidence in full flower. Lady Macbeth is a work of staggering inspiration and consummate skill, and he had already completed most of his next major work, his Fourth Symphony.
A starkly tragic masterpiece, Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was one of his most ambitious and innovative works. It shows him breaking radical new ground as a post-Mahlerian symphonist, and so it is no surprise that friends and colleagues implored Shostakovich to withdraw the work before its scheduled premiere after Stalin’s rejection of Lady MacBeth. Its dark message and comparatively modern language would have, in all likelihood, sealed Shostakovich’s fate with the authorities. Canceling its premiere was one of the most painful decisions of Shostakovich’s professional life.
Shortly after the Pravda article was published, Shostakovich was summoned to a meeting with Stalin’s emissary, Platon Kerzhentsev. Shostakovich was asked whether he “fully accepted the criticism of his work” in the Pravda articles. Shostakovich’s answer, according to Kerzhentsev was that “he accepts most of it, but he has not fully comprehended it all.” Shostakovich’s vague answer had been carefully calculated, but was a huge risk- had he fully accepted all the criticisms, his future music would have been judged strictly by the terms of Stalin’s previous criticisms. By feigning ignorance, he was giving himself vital space to continue to create and experiment, but had Stalin sensed his reticence to comply fully, the price would surely have meant death for Shostakovich and his family.
Under the circumstances, Shostakovich could have been forgiven for avoiding the most public of instrumental genres, the symphony, until the climate had improved. In fact, he would later do exactly that- in the late 1940’s when the premiere of his Ninth Symphony led to another public shaming by the authorities, he chose to wait until after the death of Joseph Stalin four years later to complete his Tenth Symphony, even though parts of it were sketched many years earlier.
However, in spite of the danger of further provoking the Party, Shostakovich quickly began work on the Fifth, completing the score in July 1937. The work’s premiere by the St Petersburg (then the Leningrad) Philharmonic under its music director, Yevgeny Mravinsky, was an occasion of incredible expectation and almost unimaginable anxiety. The impact of the work on its first audience is hard to overstate- many listeners wept openly during the elegiac slow movement. At the end of the performance, the audience burst into an ovation so passionate and stormy that it nearly eclipsed the 45 minute symphony in duration.
Shostakovich’s public statements were a vital tool in his life-long cat and mouse game with the authorities. As a result, one should always read anything he wrote or said about his music with great scepticism- his audience was the Party, not posterity. Shortly after the premiere, Shostakovich published a short, highly opaque essay called “My Creative Response,” from which comes the Fifth’s epigraph ‘A Soviet artist’s practical, creative reply to just criticism.’ This title and the work’s traditional formal structure and direct musical language served to placate Stalin and the Party. Shostakovich was partially rehabilitated and the piece went on to become one of the most frequently played works in the twentieth century. Shostakovich’s contrite essay, and the official verdict of party-approved critics, especially Alexei Tolstoy, helped set in place an official programme for the work as “an optimistic tragedy” that would allow it to be exploited by the state, as well as performed, but this official reading, which was never accepted by a majority of Russian musicians or listeners, came to be uncritically accepted by many Western commentators, leading to decades of confusion, misunderstanding, and even misrepresentation.
Early critical reaction unanimously recognized the deeply tragic mood of the first three movements. One writers noted that “the emotional tension is at the limit: another step—and everything will burst into a physiological howl.” Another said, “The passion of suffering in several places is brought to a naturalistic screaming and howling. In some episodes, the music can elicit an almost physical sense of pain.” Given the later-day controversy about the meaning of the Symphony’s Finale, it is worth noting that the writer Alexander Fadeyev wrote after the premiere that “The end does not sound like an exit (and certainly not like a triumph or victory) but like a punishment or a revenge on someone.” Another listener compared the work with Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique, the most tragic of all Russian symphonies.
First movement- Moderato
It seems there is a tradition in the best fifth symphonies from Beethoven to Mahler to begin with a shocking, dramatic gesture. The almost physical impact of the beginning of Shostakovich’s Fifth slightly belies how restrained he is in using the orchestra in the Symphony’s opening paragraphs. As in his Eighth and Tenth symphonies, he begins using only the strings, gradually introducing the bassoons, flutes, oboes and clarinets, and finally, the brass and percussion.
In the late 1970’s, the publication of Solomon Volkov’s “Testimony- The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich” brought on heated debate in the West over the official programme of the Fifth. A mirror-image programme, no doubt closer to the truth but still far too one-dimensional, was suggested: that the work was a protest against the Stalinist Terror. In the ensuing decades of often maddeningly reductionist debate, it has been easy to overlook evidence that the work has several programmes. The first of these is suggested by the first movement’s second theme. Soaring and tender in its first incarnation in the violins, and more pained when repeated by the violas, playing in an intentionally cruel register, it is a variation of the work’s opening theme, but also a quote from the Habanera (“L’amour, l’amour”) of Bizet’s Carmen.
Why Carmen? In 1934-5 Shostakovich had fallen in love with Elena Konstantinovskya. She had ultimately rejected him, and married a man named Roman Carmen. As with his symphonic idol, Mahler, Shostakovich understood that a symphony could carry a variety of messages and express a range of programmes, from the most public to the most private. This first movement of the Fifth marks an important turning point in his development, wherein he defines and perfects his own, very personal reworking of traditional Sonata form. By reversing the order of themes in the recapitulation, he creates a vast arch form, building in intensity to a climax of apocalyptic intensity, finally disintegrating into tragic resignation. The restraint with which the movement begins and ends is matched by the near hysterical abandon of the movement’s climax. Shostakovich uses tempo to intensify this arch shape, beginning the symphony very slowly, gradually speeding up through the development and then winding down to end at very nearly the same speed as the opening. This design was based to a large extent on the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, and Shostakovich would use it again in the 7th, 8th and 10th symphonies.
Second Movement- Allegretto
The second movement, a rather gruff Ländler shows Shostakovich at his most Mahlerian- mixing charm and venom, elegance and irony in equal measure. The Trio begins as a study in obsequious grace, with the solo violin playing flirtatiously over delicate harp and pizzicato accompaniment, but the music repeatedly loses its cool, descending into noisy violence. The sinister return of the Ländler is surely a nod to the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth, with its skeletal instrumentation of staccato bassoons and pizzicato strings. One last flirtatious nod to the violin solo, this time on solo oboe, disingenuously promises a gentle resolution of the movement’s tensions, before a final angry outburst brings the movement to an abrupt close in A minor.
Third Movement- Largo
The extraordinary Largo, written in just three days, is one of Shostakovich’s most moving creations. As in the opening of the first movement, Shostakovich uses the orchestra with tremendous restraint. Again, he opens with a long paragraph for strings, only gradually and sparingly introducing woodwinds and percussion. The brass remain silent throughout. In the second paragraph solo oboe, clarinet and flute each state a theme pregnant with loneliness over nearly static string tremolo accompaniment. Then, Shostakovich begins the inexorable build up to the anguished emotional climax of the entire symphony, a passage the great American musicologist Michael Steinberg calls “the most Tchaikovskian page in all Shostakovich.”
Finale- Allegro non troppo
A dispassionate glance at the score of the Finale, a movement described by Volkov as “perhaps the most disturbing and ambivalent music of the 20th c.” immediately reveals an important structural tie to the first movement. Once again, Shostakovich’s metronome markings express a carefully calculated arch form, beginning at crotchet= 88, then speeding up through 104, 108, 120, 126, 132 to 184, then winding down from 160 to 108, 116 and finally 92, exactly (as in the first movement) one notch above the opening tempo on the metronome, but for one important quirk. Where as in the first movement Shostakovich marks the opening tempo as quaver=76 (the equivalent of crotchet=38) and the end as crotchet=42 (or the equivalent of quaver=84). In the finale, this is reversed, and instead of ending with a marking of crotchet= 92, the final tempo is quaver=188, a marking that on first glance seems eccentric enough to merit suspicion. In spite of this clear structural tempo relationship, Michael Steinberg points out that “Most of the big-name conductors seem to proceed entirely at random.”
The Finale shatters the rapt stillness of the Largo with a violent and brutish march, the theme of which integrates material from no less than three sources. The first is, again, Carmen, using the music from the Habanera setting the words “Prends garde a tois!” or “Beware! Beware!” Secondly, material from the theme was used again in Shostakovich’s later setting of Robert Burns poem “MacPherson’s Farewell,’ to the words “Sae rantingly, sae wantonly, sae dauntingly gaed he” as the hero is led to “the gallers-tree.” Finally, as Gerald McBurney observed, the first four notes (A D E F) are the same as the first four notes of Shostakovich’s 1936 setting of the Pushkin poem “Rebirth,” wherein the poet describes “A Barbarian artist with sleepy brush”, who “Blackens over a picture of genius.” The parallels with Stalin’s obliteration of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and Lady Macbeth are obvious.
In the course of the ensuing build up, there are more quotations to be found, notably from the fourth movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, both of which, like Shostakovich’s Burns setting, contain vivid musical descriptions of public executions. In the quiet middle section, Shostakovich returns to his setting of Pushkin’s “Rebirth” quoting his own music from the final stanzas:
But with the year, the alien paints
Flake off like old scales;
The creation of genius appears before us
In its former beauty.
Thus do delusions fall away
From my worn-out soul
And there spring up within it
Visions of original, pure days.
Confusion over the metaphysical and political “meaning” of the Fifth has been greatly increased by the purely musical confusion over the final tempo, largely propagated by Leonard Bernstein’s iconic 1959 recording and his performance with the New York Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s presence that year, in which he famously more than doubled the speed from what Shostakovich had written. Although Shostakovich later repeatedly confirmed his intention that it be played at quaver=188, confusion continues to this day among conductors and critics more inclined to learn a piece through recordings than through the score. (In his defence, Bernstein, throughout his career, was generally more scrupulous in his observance of many of the other metronome markings in the symphony than Mravinsky, who tends to speed through the symphony’s slow music).
But what are we to make of that idiosyncratic metronome marking? By giving the tempo in quavers, Shostakovich is implying that each quaver has its own impulse, its own emphasis, and, in fact the entire coda has an absolutely unremitting string of continuous quavers, all on the pitch A, 252 in all. The brass, in note values double their original length, bring back the opening “Barbarian” or Carmen theme, now in triumphant D major- “Prends garde! Beware!” it seems to bellow over and over. Through it all, the strings, woodwinds and piano continue to repeat those A’s over and over. When asked by his son what all those A’s where meant to signify, Shostakovich reportedly said “La! La! La! La!” La is the Russian nickname for Elena, the woman who had broken his heart by marrying Mr Carmen; Shostakovich’s archivist Manashir Yakubov calls it “a cry of despair and farewell.” Yet, asked by another friend, Shostakovich replied “Ya! Ya! Ya!” or “Me! Me! Me!” This tension between the barbarian and the genius, and between “me” and “her” continues to the final note of the piece. Ambivalent, angry, triumphant, tortured, heartbroken, defiant, world-embracing and self-regarding, the final page of this greatest of 20th c. symphonies is so powerful for much the same reason it has always been so controversial. When one is able to recognize the depth and intensity of its countless tensions and contradictions, what listener could ever settle for something as simplistic and straightforward as a happy, or sad, ending again?
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