Symphony No. 5 in D Minor

Op. 47, Dimitri Shostakovich ​

Among his fifteen symphonies, written between 1925 and 1971, Shostakovich’s Fifth has often been deemed the most popular.It was obsequiously titled “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism,” acknowledging government criticism in Pravda, in which his music was characterized as “Chaos instead of Music.” Stalin had walked out of a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and was furious. The article was menacing: “The inspiring quality of good music is [herein] sacrificed in favor of petty-bourgeois formalist celebration with pretense at originality by cheap clowning. This game may end badly.” The composer took this seriously.

To save himself, he withdrew his introspective Fourth Symphony from its premiere (not to be heard until 1961) and produced a carefully contrived symphony in 1937 to please the Kremlin. Because he had already experienced government disapproval in 1930, with his satirical opera, The Nose, and more government disapproval in 1936 via the review in Pravda, the composer was keenly aware of non-compliance with explicit government rules and taste. Did he really write the apology? Was he truly contrite? Probably not. Within this score there are hidden messages and scornful parodies of Soviet leadership, well disguised in a dramatic thriller. For example, many have noted that the march is sinister and mocking, and the waltz is ironic and bitter.

Number 5 was written quickly, and completed on July 29, 1937. He later wrote that his Fifth Symphony was about “the suffering of man, and all-conquering optimism. I wanted to convey in the Symphony how, through a series of tragic conflicts of great turmoil, optimism asserts itself as a world view.”

Why did the Soviet government assume artistic power? What did they dislike in former musical traditions?

Among the many reforms in Russia during the eighteenth century, during the reigns of Peter I, the Empresses Elisabeth, and Catherine, the importation of western music was popular and inspirational to Russian composers. By the nineteenth century, these influences grew, blending into the Russian national style, fertilizing ideas and orchestration from western sources which produced triumphs in romantic masterpieces. In the early twentieth century, Russian composers contributed to international avant-garde experimentation, and they continued to make their mark on the world stage. Then came the Stalinist regime in the 1930’s and music became controlled by the state, dictating content and format, cleansing art music from westernization, complexity, and intellectualism. Music became a propaganda mechanism, a powerful force for emotional, intellectual, political, and social influence. Adherence to “Soviet Realism” as defined and sanctioned by the state in 1932 was mandated in the arts, and those who did not comply suffered expulsion, prison, and possibly death.

This time, the sole purpose of the serious music composer was to exalt the state, serve the state, enchant the working class, and most of all to produce accessible, tuneful, thrilling music. Levon Hakobian wrote that “the stillborn art of Socialist Realism was favored by the communist government and intended to serve the ideological necessities of the regime.” They wanted cheerful, ascending melodies, perhaps some folk music tossed in, and lively marches. Anything less, was sabotage. All the rest was “decadent bourgeois art.” Homo sovieticus was going to be a new kind of human being, and those who practiced the tenets of Soviet Realism were, in Stalin’s words, “engineers of souls.”

This was the brutal artistic environment in which Shostakovich (1906–1975) lived and worked when writing his Fifth Symphony. The symphony was considered an immediate success; Shostakovich was momentarily “in the clear” from attack, and he was reinstated as a composer of the people. In the controversial Testimony, a collection of Shostakovich’s memoirs by Solomon Volkov, the composer is quoted, saying “the rejoicing [in the Fifth symphony] is forced, created under threat… It is as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing…”

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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