Shostakovitch: Symphony no 5

It is said of Shostakovich that he ‘shot at the stars’ and attempted to progress music “beyond the point at which the last had taken it”. His life is a study of courage and a story of success and approval against great odds. He was born into a musical family. His mother taught piano and his father had a fine baritone voice. Musical evenings were frequent, and young Dmitri was encouraged to join in as his talent emerged. He possessed a phenomenal musical memory, and became a first class pianist at the Conservatoire, excelling in Bach, Liszt and Beethoven. He was also developing as a composer, and it was this outlet that eventually took the ascendant. He still performed as a concert pianist, but infrequently, and as compositional acclaim took over, he sidelined the piano and absorbed himself in composing. His 1st Symphony completed in 1926 was a huge success, and earned the plaudits of an international reputation. His great talent was recognised, and Dmitri Shostakovich had arrived!

Of the 15 Symphonies, No. 5 is considered to be apologetic, as he sought to absolve himself from growing criticism of his music by the Soviet State. His 4th Symphony was considered as ‘leftist’ musical chaos, with thunderous brass and cacophony, which left the audience stunned and disbelieving! He was deeply troubled by this criticism, and defended his right to compose ‘New music’ with atonal medium.

The score of the 5th Symphony is abstract, formulaic and heroic in nature, the hero being the composer himself! It is a smooth and more accessible symphony, with much harmony and melody, apart perhaps from the rather grotesque dance in the second movement.

A flourish of string leaps opens the 1st Movement (Moderato), leading to the violins quietly announcing the beautiful expansive theme, full of nervous energy. This lyrical melody is however constantly threatened by timpani and brass chords, almost in conflict, leading to a stern march. The opening motif is restated and resolved into a tight climax. The 2nd Movement, a ‘scherzo’ of barely four minutes duration, gives us relief from the concentration of the opening movement. Each orchestral section takes its part in this gay, raucous march, providing comic relief, piquant melodies and generous use of ‘glissandi’. Brass is omitted altogether in the slow movement, a searching and introspective ‘largo’. It is a study in string sonorities, where violas and celli are divided into two groups, and violins into three. There is a harp motif, and all instruments add their weight to produce a rich and emotional texture of sound, as the coda approaches.

The dynamic ‘finale’ literally bursts forth – a massive wall of sound to introduce a simple, straightforward symphonic movement, with three distinct sections. After the opening onslaught, trombones and tuba announce a new theme which catches all instruments, driving it forward with ever increasing tempo. A solo trumpet slices through the dense texture with a second theme, and the music at length arrives at a stupendous climax – the full Monty!! – with tutti, fff, et al!

Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony takes its place amongst the most profound and significant works of world symphonic music, and was taken as a sign of his reformation by the Soviet State. He was later decorated, and emerged as a national hero of Mother Russia!