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Composed: 1936–1937

Length: c. 45 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, piccolo, 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, and xylophone), 2 harps, piano, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 18, 1943, William Steinberg conducting

About this Piece

The Fifth Symphony was written at a critical juncture in Shostakovich’s career, since for the first time (and not the last) he had to confront the peril of Stalin’s displeasure. This was aroused by his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, whose expressionistic intensity and brutal narrative offended the Great Leader. In January 1936, Pravda devoted a ferocious column to condemning the opera. In Stalin’s world, such criticism was life-threatening, not merely career-threatening, which would explain why Shostakovich withheld the exploratory Fourth Symphony he was then working on and composed instead the Fifth.   

Even so, he attempted to make amends not with a patriotic cantata or a sycophantic ode but with a symphony, that most formalist of forms, always a mystery to Soviet policymakers, since a symphony without words is not specifically supportive of the regime. The Fifth Symphony, first performed in November 1937, was received with huge enthusiasm and relief since it possessed all the qualities needed to rehabilitate the composer: a simple and direct musical language, extended well-shaped melodies, and, above all, a positive fanfare at the end, erasing all shadows and doubts. At the same time, it has a seriousness and complexity that lifts it well above the level of bland self-abasement that might have been his response.  

Shostakovich publicly described the new work as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” Privately, he said (or is said to have said) that the finale was a satirical picture of the dictator, deliberately hollow but dressed up as exuberant adulation. It was well within Shostakovich’s power to present a double message in this way, and it is well beyond our means to establish whether the messages are true or false. The listener must read into this music whatever meaning may be found here; its strength and depth will allow us to revise our impressions at every hearing.  

The shadows of both Beethoven and Mahler hang over the first two movements, the first movement displaying great ingenuity in the control of tempo from slow to fast and back, and the second couched in a folksy idiom, with traces of the jocular spirit of all scherzos. The third movement is notable for the fine quality of the string writing (the brass are not involved) and its intensity of expression. In contrast, the finale gives the brass and percussion a chance to flex their muscles and hammer home the message of...what? Triumph in the major key, perhaps; pride in a populist regime, perhaps; the mask of jollity concealing the tears beneath, perhaps. The language of music remains forever inscrutable. —Hugh Macdonald