16 Nov 2011

Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 in D Minor

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, glockenspiel, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, harp, piano/celesta, strings
Duration: 44 minutes in four movements.

THE COMPOSER – DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) – Shostakovich had been leading a fitful but successful life in the Soviet Union in January 1936 when he read the now famous article in Pravda that changed everything. Stalin had just attended a performance of Lady MacBeth and the “anonymous” Pravda condemnation made it clear that the Party elite was not at all pleased with what they heard.  They called it “chaos instead of music” and their critique held deadly implications.  

THE MUSIC – An equally bitter pill was fed to Shostakovich when many of his composer colleagues participated in the public disapproval of his music. He was concerned enough that he withdrew his edgy 4th Symphony and hid it away for fear of offending Stalin further. What followed was a moment of redemption that is as famous now as the fall from grace that necessitated it, even if the intentions of the redeemed remain at the core of one of the great running debates in music history. The 5th Symphony, by virtue of its “simplified” language, signaled to the Party that a significant rehabilitation had occurred. It was an odd message for them to have received given the symphony’s lack of overt patriotism and rather sullen slow movement but it is possible that the audience reaction created a propaganda problem. How could they further denounce a man who had just elicited a 40-minute ovation? Did the immediate success force them to ignore some veiled insolence in the 5th Symphony in favor of a politically convenient acceptance of apology? Rostropovich reportedly believed that the piece would have gotten Shostakovich killed if not for the thunderous response of the listeners. So, did Shostakovich outsmart Stalin or simply give him what he wanted? It is quite possible that with this mighty masterpiece Shostakovich actually did one while secretly affecting the other, and that “A Soviet Artist’s Creative Reply to Just Criticism” can be quite creative indeed.                                 

THE WORLD – Japan invaded China in 1937. The Hindenburg Disaster occurred in May of that year and Amelia Earhart disappeared in July. Notable publications in 1937 included The Hobbit, Of Mice and Men and To Have and Have Not.  

THE CONNECTION – Symphony No. 5 is part of the Utah Symphony’s regular repertoire and has been programmed many times over the years, most recently in 2005 under then Music Director Keith Lockhart.