1937: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, age 31

Valery Gergiev:
Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra

If you are new to this Symphony, start with the last movement…

It’s fast, exciting and has as much adrenaline as I’ve ever heard in music.

Now try the whole symphony…

I. Moderato – Allegro non troppo (D minor)

II. Allegretto (A minor)

III. Largo (F♯ minor):

IV. Allegro non troppo (D minor – D major):

Instrumentation:

  • piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and Eb clarinet, 2  bassoons and contrabassoon
  • 4 horns, 3 Bb trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 harps (one part), piano, celesta
  • strings

Now a break-down of what these movements represent…

I. Moderato – Allegro non troppo (D minor)

This is long, rambling, complicated and challenging. When I first heard this symphony, I think I just suffered through this. I just did not like it. I guess I did not hate it. Today it is the exact opposite. It fascinates me in every way, and it’s not just an intellectual pleasure. I guess it took time, maturing and experience. In fact, today the whole thing does not make sense to me without this 1st movement.

II. Allegretto (A minor)

I don’t know what this is about, intellectually. I just love the sound. At times it sounds like the world’s heaviest waltz, where sometimes the dancer skips a step because of totally odd meter. And there is the odd matter of Mahler. I have no idea if Shostakovitch like Mahler, and I would think that the incredible hostility between Russia and Germany would have cut down Russian interest in German symphonic music, but I hear Mahler. I hear a lot of other things to, but the Mahler connection is most striking to me.

III. Largo (F♯ minor)

What is this about? I’ve never stopped to think about form. It’s one of the most intensely painful, sorrowful things I’ve heard, and the Russian audience supposedly cried when they first hear this. I don’t like people who try to explain music. It should just be, and we should absorb it, let it run through our souls, but for me the tragedy in this is visceral. I can’t imagine any passionate human being hearing this without being incredibly moved. Furthermore, it’s obvious without looking at him that Bernstein was emotionally drained every time he conducted this.

IV. Allegro non troppo (D minor – D major)

First of all, this a much later version than the one I grew up with, recorded in 1959. It was recorded 20 years later. It’s not as razor clean. It’s less hyper. Perhaps he tempered his own view, but the conception remains unique, and when you get to the end you can hear how the people react. Bernstein was a rock star, and when he was on he ignited audiences as very few conductors ever have or ever will. You can hear in this last movement while this has always been a big hit with the public. Not only is it angry, and passionate, and romantic, it also has a triumphant ending.

All those percussion instruments…

There are so many, and historically it’s fascinating to watch how this changed over time. I believe Berlioz was the first to explode the number of instruments in his Symphony Fantastique, and that was just the start of it. Brahms was a total reactionary and so he didn’t nothing to change things, but so many others did.

A huge triumph…

There is a huge amount of Soviet history related to this symphony. The Soviets under Stalin were absolutely brutal in trying to stamp out any kind of artistic freedom, and Shostakovitch had been moving in a direction they did not like. He was using an increasing amount if dissonance, something they blamed on the West. With this Symphony No. 5 moved to a less dissonant and more “audience friendly” style of writing. It both satisfied Stalin, getting him off his back, and it connected viscerally with the public. I read that at the end of the premiere the audience gave him a standing ovation of at least a half hour.

Did Shostakovitch sell out?

First of all, if he did, he had to survive. But the big question is this: did that push to be more mainstream actually hurt him? Did he really hate what he wrote? Or was the combination of political forces together with his own inner drive a fortuitous combination that somehow produced his best work?

The bottom line is that it worked…

This symphony, as he finally created it, went on to be on of his most popular creations. Perhaps it was too “populist” for his personal taste, but from my experience there is enough that is challenging in the sound, especially in the first movement, that it could hardly be called something that is easy to listen to for the average person.

Bernstein’s concept…

It’s controversial because he ended the last movement with a huge, manic burst of energy, and later we found out that Shostakovitch had in mind something oppressive. The huge timpani at the end is not about triumph. It’s about the Soviets driving everyone against their will.

BUT:

There is always a “but”. Shostakovitch himself seemed inconsistent. At one point he was wildly enthusiastic about Bernstein’s interpretation, and I believe that interpretation was a huge push forward for the symphony.

Politics and music don’t mix…

If Shostakovitch’s intent was to describe in music his war with the Soviet government, he failed. It’s one thing to share your feelings at the time you write music, but it’s another thing to try to express complicated thoughts. In my view this whole “rebellion against the Soviets is killing me” idea is an utter fail. It is also very possible for composers to start out with an intent, but then get lost in the music itself.

I utterly reject Shostakovitch’s idea of a heavy, tortured ending. I’ve heard it done this way by other conductors, and I loathe it. This one goes back to 1959, and for me that concept just kills every other interpretation I’ve heard except this later one, obviously also by Bernstein. I can’t hear anyone else conduct this. Everyone else sounds terribly inferior. I’m utterly convinced by his vision.

1 thought on “1937: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, age 31

  1. Thank you for this. I appreciated having a chance to hear the last movement done by two different conductors and orchestras. I’d liked to take the time to truly dive into this some time in the future.

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