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Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, piano, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 18, 1943, with William Steinberg conducting
After falling into disfavor with the Soviet cultural commissars during the early 1930s for writing music they found immoral, too progressive, and otherwise unsuitable for mass consumption – most notably the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – Shostakovich eclipsed all his previous successes, even that of the cheeky First Symphony (1925), in 1937 with his Fifth Symphony.
No previous work by a Russian composer had ever caused such a torrent of official approval or popular acclaim. It is as if Shostakovich had reinvented music – and finally achieved the goal (whose, precisely, has since become a clouded issue) of the wedding of “true art” to at least implied propaganda. There has been much polemicizing regarding this work.
The Symphony rehabilitated the composer in the eyes of the system and allowed him wide creative latitude – before he was again banished to the official doghouse after World War II. What was in 1937 universally regarded as a depiction of a people’s triumph over adversities of all sorts came to be regarded in more cynical quarters as doom-laden and satirical. The more commonly held belief in the West came to be that the Fifth Symphony projected the sufferings of the composer at the hands of the system that supported him materially, while the militant uplift at the end was, rather, a satire of militarism – or of official Soviet uplift.
The occasion of the work’s premiere on October 21, 1937, was a memorable affair, with Evgeny Mravinsky leading the Leningrad Philharmonic, as it was then know. “At the conclusion,” writes D. Rabinovich, the composer’s chief Soviet-era biographer, “the audience rose and applauded the composer for what seemed as long a time as the ovation that had greeted his First Symphony almost a dozen years earlier. The leading music critics considered it to be the most important work to date by the composer, and one which marked the beginning of a new style in his work.”
The Fifth Symphony made the rounds of the major Russian cities, to similarly enthusiastic receptions, and before long it was heard as well throughout Europe and in the U.S., with the consensus that it was the 20th-century Russian symphony most likely to take its place in the standard international repertory. Some Western reviewers, however, considered the music “obvious,” and lacking the wit of the First Symphony. Which did not stop the Fifth Symphony from being rapturously received by audiences in Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, and Boston. The critics were clearly outvoted.
There are many versions of the symphony’s program – the Soviets did, after all, insist that their music be “about something.” The composer himself at the time of the premiere claimed that its theme was “the stabilization of a personality. At the core of this composition – conceived lyrically from beginning to end – I saw Man and all his experiences. The finale resolves the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements into optimism and joy of living.”
The conductor Boris Khaikin quotes the composer as saying, “I finished the Fifth Symphony in the major and fortissimo…. It would be interesting to know what would have been said if I had finished it pianissimo and in the minor.” “Only later,” Khaikin himself adds, “did I understand the full significance of these words, when I heard the Fourth Symphony, which does finish in the minor and pianissimo. But in 1937 nobody knew the Fourth Symphony.” The composer himself had suppressed it, convinced that its extreme dissonance and darkness would land him back in the official mud.
One can ramble on forever about the meaning and intent of the Fifth Symphony – and whether or not it is entirely straight-faced, or disingenuous, or self-serving, although there can be no doubt that the first and third movements are profoundly serious. What it ultimately comes down to is that, without disregarding the harmonic language of the 20th century, Shostakovich succeeded here in recalling the grandeur and the weight of the late-Romantic statements of Borodin and Tchaikovsky, without for a moment sounding like those composers.
– Herbert Glass