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Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-75) – Symphony No. 5

[2271 words]

Imagine: you’re internationally famous. One fine morning, you open the paper. It says you’ve been tried and condemned. Your crime? The very work that brought you fame. Later, you see posters proclaiming you an “enemy of the people”. Suddenly, your considerable talents are unmarketable, people avoid you like the plague, and you’re under constant threat of arrest. This sounds like something straight out of Kafka, doesn’t it? Well, they say truth is stranger than fiction – and fiction this is not.
But, what is “truth”? A statement of fact? Amongst umpteen other things, Stalin severely screwed up Soviet history, leaving undisputed facts in singularly short supply. Following the collapse of the USSR, many “facts” tumbled westwards. The real truth must be in there, somewhere, but which of the various “truths” is it? Shostakovich’s entire career is entangled in this web. What’s the truth about the Fifth Symphony? Nobody knows for sure. I can only tell you what I believe is true.
Let’s begin in 1932, when the Central Committee dissolved all current Associations and “unionised” the arts, thereby replacing a means of pestering intellectuals by one of persecuting intellectuals. Within a month, “Dialectical Materialism” was ousted by “Socialist Realism”, which was defined by what it wasn’t, that is, “Formalism”, which was anything the State didn’t like. Artistic – and any other – licence had been revoked.
January 1934 saw the première of Shostakovich’s first really serious composition. Stuffed with everything that makes opera so endearing – humiliation, brutality, murder, suicide, drunkenness, jealousy, rape etc. – Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was a roaring success. Hailed as the greatest Russian opera of modern times, it made Shostakovich the hottest of hot property.
That same month Stalin’s deputy, Kirov, was assassinated. The official investigation quickly uncovered a conspiracy involving over 40,000 people in Leningrad alone. If this seems rather a lot, it’s because they – and, eventually, several million others – were all “framed”. This killing was the first shot in Stalin’s Great Terror, part of a strategic exercise in Pavlovian “social engineering” that made Hitler look like a dithering dilettante.
Addressing the 1935 Composers’ Union Conference, Shostakovich offered an entirely reasonable critique of Socialist Realism. Apparently, he was still under the impression that “democracy ruled, OK?” He was sadly mistaken. Subsequently, attacks were made on Lady MacBeth (a really bright idea, considering this was the USSR’s most influential musical export!), and also, for diametrically opposite reasons, his light-hearted confection, The Limpid Stream. In all probability, only his prestigious position, as a State “asset”, kept him in circulation. In the autumn he started on his Fourth Symphony, a vessel for all his accumulating bitterness and anger.
Travelling between engagements in January 1936, Shostakovich opened a copy of Pravda. Masquerading as an anonymous review, Stalin’s “Muddle instead of Music” condemned Lady MacBeth – still running after two whole years – as cacophonous, pornographic, and not at all compatible with the impeccable ideals of Socialist Realism. It suggested that, if the depraved composer didn’t straighten himself out, “things could end very badly for him”. At a stroke, the shield of Shostakovich’s celebrity was wrenched from his grasp. He fully expected a one-way ticket to the salt-mines. However, the “get-out” clause was genuine – Stalin, reluctant to bin a valuable asset, had instead opted to institute a few “rehabilitative” measures.
Most notably, summoned before a special conference of the Composers’ Union, Shostakovich and his work were viciously vilified. He was “advised” to clarify and simplify his music, and to embrace the doctrine (whatever that might be) of Socialist Realism. By May 1936, with the Fourth completed, the “unpersoned” composer – racked with shame, embittered by the disloyalty of so many friends – hovered on the brink of suicide.
Late in 1936, rehearsals of the Fourth Symphony began. In permitting these to proceed, Stalin was in effect saying, “We’ve softened him up, now let’s see how he behaves.” Rehearsals went badly, partly because the conductor was transfixed by terror, partly because Shostakovich was racked by indecision. He was acutely aware that this symphony, an ideal bedfellow for Lady MacBeth, was unlikely to placate the Glorious Leader. It was “Hobson’s choice”. He withdrew it, muttering the excuse that, as it stood, it was a “failure” and “needed further work”.
Regardless of anything else (like saving his skin), this must have hurt like hell; he must have sweated blood over this complex work of massively Mahlerian proportions. Nowadays, its ending seems strangely prophetic. Unearthly woodwind, silken strings and liquid celesta pulse and shine as if emanating from some remote realm – Shostakovich, like Arthur C. Clarke’s Star-Child, is “not sure what he would do next, but he would think of something”.
Needing time to think, he kept his head down, and concentrated on eking out a living. But then, in February 1937, the pre-eminent film director, Eisenstein, was pilloried by his Union, just as Shostakovich had been. Although this was simply another step in Stalin’s strategy, to Shostakovich – the pre-eminent film composer – it would have smacked of a noose tightening round his neck. Necessity mothered invention – by April he had “thought of something”. The Fifth Symphony started to flow from his pen.
Seven months later, the Fifth was performed, before an audience of individuals isolated by mutual mistrust and paralysed by fear. The undisputed facts are: the writing was indeed much simpler and clearer; the rapturous reception lasted longer than the music; the elegiac Largo, which reduced its audience to tears, blatantly flouted the diktats of Socialist Realism; and Shostakovich was subsequently thoroughly “re-personed”. What had happened? There are two schools of thought:
The “official”, Soviet view is that Shostakovich had indeed mended his ways. Musicologists had detected, in the finale, a thematic reference to his recent Four Pushkin Romances. The song’s concluding words were “Delusions fade from my exhausted soul / And there take root / Visions of a new and purer day.” Coupled with the other factors, this clear admission of acquiescence proved conclusively that, like a good boy, Shostakovich had learned his lesson.
They explained the “iffy” Largo by declaring that it expressed the falsehood of Formalism: “[The music] expresses the progress of an intellectual from a state of individualist illusion to triumphant self-transcendence in solidarity with the people and recognition of the inevitable apotheosis of Communism.” [1]
On the other hand, the “revisionists”, who are odds-on to be much nearer the mark, claim that Shostakovich brilliantly out-manœuvred his enemies, pulling off a miracle of escapology fully worthy of Harry Houdini. The unprecedented approbation confirmed his immense propaganda value, which the Party was reluctant to sacrifice. So, the Party had no option but to bend over backwards to reconcile that glaring “degeneracy” with Socialist Realism. Then, to save face, they “managed perceptions” to “prove” that he’d seen the light, and had responded wholeheartedly to their benevolent guidance.
Yet, as an artist of the highest integrity, there was no way he could capitulate and join the “propagandist sausage-machine”. Nor, for that matter, as a proud and patriotic Russian – and a family man – could he flee into exile. Nevertheless, open defiance would have guaranteed his disappearance or sad demise. Logically, his only option was subterfuge, to become a musical “resistance fighter”. Turning ambiguity into an art-form, his works would be musical wolves in sheep’s clothing. With his Fifth Symphony Shostakovich – a shy, sensitive soul who looked as if he’d run a mile if anyone said “boo” – showed the kind of mettle that makes traditional heroes look like wimps.
His campaign started with some subtle “expectation building”. One thing the Party had taught him was to choose his words carefully. When questioned, he hinted vaguely that the Fifth was about “the making of a man”, significantly omitting to mention what sort of man. Although the work’s famous subtitle had been forced on him, he must have (secretly) jumped for joy at seeing his intended ambiguity perfectly reflected in “A Soviet Artist’s Creative Reply to Just Criticism”. That was exactly what he intended to give them.
Naturally, these tactics extended into the music. For example, he planted that “Pushkin” reference, deliberately to divert the musicological lackeys. However, the beginning of the poem substantially modifies the intended meaning of the end; it equates those fading delusions to the flaking away of paint which had been daubed over a masterpiece by some barbarian. Of course, it was a gamble, but it paid off. Shostakovich knew that they’d missed the point, simply because he’d survived to wield this two-edged sword before the public.
For over 40 years, in the absence of any contrary evidence, the Fifth Symphony was generally regarded as a grovelling apology. Meanwhile, it entered the hearts of millions, becoming the USSR’s most enduring and endearing musical export. How come? Was it simply because the Fifth is a masterpiece, regardless of its purpose? Or was it because some shadow of Shostakovich’s indomitable spirit had seeped, surreptitiously, into the souls of attentive listeners?
Sheep’s clothing? As “advised”, Shostakovich had attended carefully to clarity and simplicity, making the surface easy to apprehend. So, here let us marvel at some of his hidden wolves:
1. Moderato. Musical form cedes to narrative development. The ascetic opening [A1] introduces two cells: a two-note figure [A], and three rhythmically repeated notes [B]. A, a Lady MacBeth motif representing “brutal authority”, hereafter stands for “Stalin”, whilst B, if MacDonald is to be believed, is “Shostakovich’s blackly ironic attempt to ‘straighten himself out’” (later, three-note phrases, when opposed to A1, would represent “the People”). These persistently invade the succeeding, long-drawn, main subject [C]. The second subject isn’t, it’s just B rhythmically subordinated to a variant of A1 (so bang goes any chance of sonata form!).
In a vast central climax, A lashes B into frantic rivers of repetition, and brutalises everything – including A1. When the tension first breaks, A (tympani) with B (snare-drum) in tow, contorts C into a grotesque military march – one of Stalin’s favourite things. Eventually, A compels C to stand, alone and exposed. Its massive confession is met by a malignantly triumphant A1 (heavy brass), trampling upon B.
That gesture pre-echoes the reappearance of the “second subject”, now with a horn slavishly following the flute – to places a horn shouldn’t really go. As the movement fades away, in an A1-induced surreal haze, we might well surmise that Shostakovich has just graphically portrayed his 1936 humiliation.
2. Allegretto. Is this the way the “self-transcendent” have fun? Well, co-opting a couple of ideas from Mahler – who was himself no slouch at bitter irony – Shostakovich secretes, within the superficial jollity of this Communist “party”, some severely sarcastic caricature. The spirit of Punch and Judy moves upon the face of the music.
The outer sections echo the clod-hopping gemächlichen ländler style of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, whilst the trio emulates the “Death takes the fiddle” aspect of the Fourth. An omnipresent A controls a combination of rude revelry and compulsory catechism classes. At the end a bewildered oboe, emerging bleary-eyed from the melée, is summarily squashed underfoot.
3. Largo. In the other movements Shostakovich had calculated carefully, trying to ensure that the apparatchiks would swallow the “apparent” without tasting the truths hidden within. Here, however, he gambled everything on them finding something that wasn’t even there. Why? Because this Largo is an utterly genuine, utterly forbidden lament – and one which, if they failed to fit it into the overall “sheep” pattern, would become his own funeral music. With an intimacy intensified by the use of woodwind and strings only, Shostakovich poured out his true feelings. Significantly, through the movement’s two impassioned climaxes and their attendant meditations, there no trace of the evil A, which leaves B free to “bend” at will.
Ironically, here Shostakovich had restored what Communism had been busy suppressing: for these few precious minutes, people could actually commune. Speaking openly and directly, at a time when even close families dare not confide, Shostakovich assured them that he knew, and that his music could be their voice. No wonder they wept. In all likelihood, it was their tumultuous gratitude that kept his voice alive.
4. Allegro non troppo. A piercing shriek shatters the stillness. A (tympani) sets a-rolling the rowdy Socialist bandwagon (first subject), which scoops up ever more “straightened characters” (B, extended ad nauseam). A “celebratory” second subject (trumpet) resounds over milling panic. As the rivers of Bs burst their banks, this theme climaxes – and underneath, there is A, flogging up the frenzy. Under the sheer weight of pounded Bs, the wheels come off, and B is crushed in a manner sickeningly similar to that of the first movement.
A horn offers the second subject, now a sugared pill. This is roundly rejected by tormented strings, which instead elicit the “Pushkin” reference (an “Alberti bass” figure on high violins) – the “new and purer day” is at hand. Dawn brings the first subject, but it is unspeakably ugly, growling, oily black. Crawling from under some stone, it starts to grow. As brass herald the imminent “inevitable apotheosis of Communism”, A marshals the legions of Bs. When the inevitable arrives, the world overflows with the Word of the Glorious Leader (A, on drums pounded fit to burst their skins), received ecstatically by the Faithful multitudes (B, incessant, high-pitched, hysterical screaming). The true meaning is perfectly clear, is it not?
Just think: if Stalin had not condemned millions of people to death, tens of millions to slavery, and hundreds of millions to live in abject fear, this music would never have existed. By rights, we should thank Stalin for “inspiring” this masterpiece. Somehow, I cannot bring myself to do that, although it goes without saying that Dmitry Dmitryevich himself has my undying gratitude.
© Paul Serotsky, 2008, 2009
[1] Quoted from The New Shostakovich, by Ian MacDonald (pub. Fourth Estate Ltd., London, 1990, ISBN 1-87218-041-8). Although MacDonald firmly espouses the revisionist view, his discussion is far from one-sided. Drawing on wealth of source materials MacDonald asks and argues many hard questions.

© Paul Serotsky
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