In 1936, Joseph Stalin’s Terror was well underway. “By the spring of 1937, the composer’s brother-in-law, Vsevolod Frederiks, had been arrested, his sister Mariya exiled to Central Asia, and his mother-in-law, Sofya Varzar, sent to a labor camp.” [Fay 1414] Elena Konstantinovskaya, a translator with whom Shostakovich had had an affair, was arrested in 1935, though released the following year. [Wilson 553] His friend, composer Nikolai Zhilyayev, was not so lucky. He was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1938. [Fay 5522]
After the “Muddle Instead of Music” article in Pravda, Shostakovich, once so visible in the press with comments and articles, retreated into silence. [Fay 1401] Two years passed before the unveiling of another major work. [Fay 1422]
The history surrounding Shostakovich is so dramatic, it’s hard to hear the music on its own, particularly music written after the Pravda article. While I thought it important to understand the historical context of the symphonies, I often despaired of retaining the ability to listen with fresh ears.
It’s fairly easy to set aside Shostakovich’s public “Soviet speak” pronouncements about the Fifth Symphony, like this:
It was man, with all his sufferings, that I saw at the center of this work, lyrical from start to finish. The finale of the symphony resolves the tragically tense moments of the opening movements in a life-affirming, optimistic plan. [Fay 1483]
Nor do I want to rely on the oft-quoted passage from Testimony, as the provenance of the memoir claimed to be by Shostakovich remains a matter of debate:
I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.” [Fay 4476, quoting Testimony 183]
After all, as Karen Khachaturian recounted, “Shostakovich hated being asked questions about his music . . . . When asked, ‘what did you want to say in this work?’ he would answer, ‘I’ve said what I’ve said.'” [Wilson 423-4]
And speak it did:
One witness recalled that men and women cried openly during the Largo, another that as the finale progressed, the listeners began to rise to their feet, one by one, giving release at the end to a deafening ovation as Mravinsky waved the score over his head. [Fay 1444]
I’d have been content to leave it there, sharing in the exaltation of that moment, had not indefatigable musicological investigators, worthy of the best forensic sleuths, uncovered possible messages encoded in the music itself.
Not long before Shostakovich began work on the Fifth Symphony, he wrote Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin. [Fay 1416] (Alexander Pushkin, it should be known, ran into trouble with his Tsar and was subject to severe censorship of his work.) As the first public performance of Four Romances didn’t occur until 1940 [Wilson 153], few if any could have known that, in the symphony’s finale, Shostakovich quoted from the last two lines of his setting of Pushkin’s Regeneration.
Just as Shostakovich preferred to let his music speak, so too may Regeneration speak for itself:
An artist-barbarian with a drowsy brush
Blackens over the painting of a genius
And senselessly draws on top of it
His own illegitimate designs.
But over the years the foreign paint
Flakes away like old scales,
And the genius’s work appears again
Before us in its former beauty.
Thus do delusions vanish
From my worried soul,
And in their place visions arise
Of pure, original days.
Prufrockian Impressions: I experience the first three movements of the Fifth Symphony as powerfully expressive, rich and deep. In the first movement, listen for the second theme, first on violins, then on woodwind and horn, an apparent allusion to Bizet’s opera Carmen (more on this below). One of many striking moments is the return of the opening theme on rasping brass with a sinister piano line beneath [Spotify ~8:57]; another is the poignant celesta as the movement fades to a close. The second movement provides engaging contrast with its impudent frolicking among strings, woodwinds, and horns. Listen for the violin’s solo dance, picked up on flute [Spotify ~1:40]. In the third movement (the largo), the brass fall silent. From the stately unfolding of orchestral harmonies and poignant woodwind lines to the delicate harp and celesta at the movement’s end, the largo is the symphony’s heart-rending soul.
In the final movement, however, as soon as I hear those resounding thumps on timpani and blaring brass, I suspect something more than “absolute music” is afoot. Listening to the quotation from the Pushkin setting among the movement’s propulsive blasts, swept aside by a coda so relentless it’s visible on the page, I can’t help but feel Shostakovich is saying in music something he could not say in words.
Shostakovich once said of the Fifth, which “rehabilitated” him in the eyes of the authorities:
I finished the symphony fortissimo and in the major. Everyone is saying that it’s an optimistic and life-affirming symphony. I wonder, what would they be saying if I had finished it pianissimo and in the minor.” [Fay 1505]
The Fourth Symphony—which, like the Pushkin settings, remained out of view for several more years—does end pianissimo and in the minor. In the Fifth, Shostakovich must have known he couldn’t take that chance. Instead, from the opening thumps of timpani to the finale’s strident close, he was his own “artist-barbarian.” Yet beneath the “foreign paint” lies that phrase from Pushkin, perhaps reminding him then, and certainly reminding us now, that “over the years the foreign paint/Flakes away like old scales.”
Richard Whitehouse’s liner notes, accompanying the Petrenko/Liverpool Royal Philharmonic CD, provide a helpful guide for listening.
For a listening list on Spotify, including the Regeneration setting, and now also including Mahler’s First Symphony, click here.
David Nice, in his comments to this post, observed “Of course the D major ‘false triumph’ at the end, with the flattened note souring it, is a parallel to another beginning – Mahler’s First, with its concluding ‘Triumphal’, also in D major.”
The Fifth Symphony on YouTube
While the Mravinsky video is not the best for audio quality, I chose it because Mravinsky, when young and unknown [Wilson 152], conducted the premiere of the Fifth Symphony. He went on to conduct the premieres of six more Shostakovich symphonies.
I couldn’t find the Regeneration setting on YouTube, but Alex Ross has side-by-side audio clips (and much more) here.
After her release from prison, Shostakovich’s former lover, Elena Konstantinovskaya, moved to Spain and married filmmaker Roman Karmen. Musicologists have found numerous references to Bizet’s Carmen in the Fifth Symphony, including an allusion to “L’amour! L’amour!” from the Habanera (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”) aria. In the Mravinsky video, I believe I hear the allusion twice in the first movement, at about 4:12 (strings), 12:04 (flute), but please correct me if I’m wrong.
Here’s a smoldering Habanera for comparison. (“L’amour! L’amour!” is at about 1:12.)
Credits: The quotations from Wilson and Fay may be found here and here. The quotation from Alex Ross may be found at the link indicated in the text. The photograph at the head of the post appears in several locations, none of which identify the source. The image from the Fifth Symphony score is from Richard Taruskin’s Music in the Early Twentieth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music at 793-794.