Monday, April 28, 2008

Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg and died in Moscow. Educated entirely in Russia, he had early success both as a pianist and as a composer. His first three symphonies were received well, as was an opera (The Nose) and numerous other works. In 1930, he began work on Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, and by 1936 it had received nearly two hundred performances in Moscow and Leningrad and had been heard in London, Zurich, Stockholm, Copenhagen and New York. In January of 1936, however, Joseph Stalin attended a performance in Moscow, and two days later Pravda published a startling article under the headline “Muddle Instead of Music” denouncing the opera as “fidgety, screaming, neurotic, coarse, primitive and vulgar.” The warning was clear: such “formalism” – a Soviet term for any art that too closely resembled Western modernism – would no longer be tolerated. Shostakovich completed but then withdrew his Fourth Symphony, and retreated into fearful silence for nearly two years. At the same time, friends and supportive colleagues were forced to make fictional confessions disappearing into prisons, even being killed. With the net closing around him, Shostakovich had to be incredibly careful with his next public work.

The Fifth Symphony was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic on November 21, 1937. Shostakovich clearly used it as a public statement that he would be adhering more closely to the concept of “socialist realism,” defined by Party theorist Nikolai Bukharin as stories of “tragedies and conflicts, vacillations, defeats, the struggle of conflicting tendencies,” to be concluded as a matter of course with triumphs of resolution to the accepted supremacy of the state. The symphony’s traditionally clear-cut four-movement symphonic form and its tonal journey from a dark d minor to a triumphant (if somewhat menacing) D Major finale made it all but impossible to describe as “muddle.” The unqualified success of the Fifth Symphony rescued Shostakovich’s reputation, at least for the time being.

It would clearly be a mistake, however, to categorize the Fifth Symphony definitively as a work of acquiescence to official demands. For decades, Western music critics for the most part dismissed Shostakovich as a Communist conformist, too weak-willed to act against the Soviet authorities. The publication in 1979 of Solomon Volkov’s controversial book Testimony: the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov called all such assumptions into question. While the authenticity of every word of the book has never been proven, the general sentiment has become accepted: that Shostakovich was miserable, fearful of speaking out but harboring intense resentment for the ruling regime. It has become clear that he was a master of Soviet doublespeak, using often using overemphasis and unnecessary repetition in his correspondence as code that he intended to convey the opposite of what his words literally meant. From Testimony: “I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Gudonov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.’ And you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’”

Through hard, even life-threatening lessons, Shostakovich learned to walk a kind of tightrope of musical irony. In his excellent book about 20th century music, The Rest is Noise, music critic Alex Ross wrote: “To talk about musical irony, we first have to agree on what the music appears to be saying, and then we have to agree about what the music is really saying. This is invariably difficult to do. We can, however, learn to be wary of any interpretation that displays too much certitude about what the music is ‘really saying’ and stay alert to multiple levels of meaning. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony becomes a rich experience when heard this way.”

--Gabriel Langfur