Steven Lu

United States

Dancing about Architecture: a Review on Shostakovich's Fifth

January 9, 2018

How do you describe instrumental music, what it means and does? Odd as the metaphor sounds, it's like dancing about architecture: any verbal or written description of such music makes little to zero sense. Yet this review worked its way quite easily through my fingers into print. That's because Dmitri Shostakovich's works can be described as creative yet convoluted, brilliant yet baffling. Although other composers, such as Bach and Mozart, were more elegant, and others such as Beethoven are more renowned, no composer quite captures the imagination quite as completely as Dmitri Shostakovich. 

Born in the Tsarist regime and raised in a time of political turmoil, Shostakovich lived to see Trotsky and Lenin's new Bolshevik regime take down the Tsar. Denouncing Nicholas as inhumane and incompetent, the Bolsheviks quickly surpassed the Tsar in those characteristics. Shostakovich lived to see Vladimir Lenin's armies fail repeatedly, expending resources that peasants desperately needed, such as food; to see Stalin overcome a power struggle, purging everyone in his path; to see Josef Stalin systematically kill millions of his own people through famine, all the while exporting grain to other European nations. He saw the Cheka, Russian Secret Police, run rampant through the streets, arbitrarily arresting and executing "traitors and kulaks," many of whom were innocent. The Cheka had a rule: if approached, citizens had to name five traitors against the Soviets. If one could only name four, he was the fifth. 

Such terror did little to curb Shostakovich's rise to stardom. His opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtensk" was, for a short while, the pinnacle of his career. The opera featured a powerful woman, driven to murder after falling in love with her husband's coworkers. The work was a masterpiece, and Russians flocked to theaters by the thousands to see it. The show became so popular that Stalin himself decided to attend a showing. Then, he stormed out before the final act had started, and Shostakovich's career flashed before his eyes.

Shostakovich's opera vanished overnight. The state newspaper Pravda denounced the work as "Muddle instead of Music." The article raged about singing being "replaced with shrieking," and Shostakovich "tickling the perverted taste of the Bourgeoisie." Shostakovich feared for his own life. It was not uncommon for musicians and composers to disappear, never to be seen again, for their so-called "anti-Soviet" works. He began to sleep out in his doorway with a suitcase, ready to leave with the Cheka without disturbing his family. 

To his intense relief, Shostakovich was not purged, instead publishing his Fifth Symphony, titled "A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism." It became an immediate hit, and to this day is his most popular symphony.

I listened to it for the first time two years ago, practicing the viola part for my orchestra's imminent performance of the work. I immediately felt goosebumps rise; the first movement depicted anger, sadness, and bitterness even in the first minute alone. Strong cords from the winds were augmented by furious tension, portrayed by the violins' tremolos. Eventually, the instruments come together, belting out a loud, slow melody that demonstrates extreme anger and determination. The movement then winds down, with a sad, yearning melody from the flute and french horn.

Almost crying, I was jarred out of my melancholy by the second movement. The movement depicts light, carefree happiness. Confused, I researched more about the movement. Why would Shostakovich insert a light-hearted part? His son, Maxim Shostakovich, describes it as a "waltz parody," and that the violin solos, seemingly so happy, portrayed a solitary voice in the "suffering and pain." The movement instantly becomes a bitter, sarcastic jab at the Soviet Union. Also noteworthy is the length of the movement: 5 minutes, only a tenth of the entire piece. Shostakovich the Younger points at this time allotment as the brief time which even false happiness lasts among a sea of repression. 

The third section instantly reverts back to outright pain. It begins with melodies from the violin, countered by a harmony from the viola. The cellos then join in, and the movement begins to swell. Many have speculated that the movement represents Shostakovich's emotions while sleeping out in the cold, waiting to be captured by the Cheka. The entire movement is played without brass, signifying a softer, less violent sadness. 

The final movement begins with a high-pitched trill from the Piccolo, and a march-like rhythm. The melody intensifies, until the ultimate melody is played: triumphant, with calls from the trumpet, it seems to signify a triumph over evil. However, the melody grinds to a halt, and a more nostalgic call arises from the french horn. The piece ends with a long, drawn-out fanfare from the brass, as the strings repeat the note "A" over and over. 

What does this all mean? What was Shostakovich's message? For decades, no one knew. Was this an ending of triumph, written to signify the sadness endured only to be triumphed over? Was this symphony truly a Soviet work, by these descriptions? The Soviet Union certainly thought of the symphony as such. However, Shostakovich was not so simple a man. When the final three minutes are played at half tempo, the so-called "triumph" becomes painful and forced. The conductor of the take that I had listened to, Mstislav Rostropovich, took this tempo with the National Symphony. Rostropovich was one of Shostakovich's closest friends in the USSR, and fled the Soviet Union after Shostakovich's death. Thus, his interpretation of the work rings true: an underhanded condemnation at Stalin's totalitarian regime.

Shostakovich's composition struck a chord with the Soviet people. The symphony was performed over a hundred times in the following two years in the USSR. It satisfied the communists as a pro-Soviet work, but ultimately served the other purpose. Shostakovich highlighted the inhumanity, the sadness, the frustration, and the hopelessness which the Soviets had incorporated into everyday life. Its messages are universal: screw the power-hungry, the hypocrites. Damn those who would starve the masses, the inhuman leaders. And, most importantly: rebel against injustice.


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