Matthew Igoe on Shostakovich

by Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony no.5 in D minor, op.47

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony no.5 in D minor, op.47

The life and work of Dmitri Shostakovich are inextricable from the imposed Stalinist regime ever present in Russia in the early to mid twentieth century. Any analysis of his symphonies is fraught with peril: the same movement heralded as a triumphant celebration of communist ideologies by his contemporaries is now universally regarded as a powerful and subversive stance against the very people he was writing for; a forced exultation, “as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing”. He exemplifies art’s need to be appreciated within its context.

To be a Russian in the late 1930s meant living a life entirely constructed and revolving around fear. Stalinism worked as terrorism: the regime inflicted fear for the sake of inflicting fear itself. It was impressively and horrifyingly successful. People were not only scared of their government, but of each other as well. Deep mistrust was planted by persuading the public to denounce their fellow citizens as enemies of the state. Because, to justify oppression, the state had to have enemies. When they did not exist, the state made its own people the enemy, whether or not the allegations had any basis at all. In this environment one ceased to live, merely to survive. In a country spanning two continents, every man became an island.

It was in this bleak world in which Dmitri Shostakovich read a scathing review of his beautifully experimental and satirical opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on 28th January 1936. That review, although officially anonymous, was thought by all to be written by Stalin himself; the article, entitled ‘Chaos instead of Music’, threatened ‘very bad’ consequences if he didn’t abandon his pessimistic, avant-garde style (with haste). The effect of these few words is nearly impossible to quantify. Shostakovich was immediately shunned by almost everybody he knew. People crossed the street to avoid him. He was listed in the press as an enemy of the people. To know him was dangerous; to associate with him, near-suicidal. His brother-in-law, mother-in-law and uncle were all taken away. Shostakovich was not yet thirty. He had little money and his wife was pregnant. He kept a small suitcase packed for the time when the expected arrest would come.

In reaction to his attack, Shostakovich instantly withdrew his Fourth Symphony from rehearsals, fearing that the cynical introspection would prove far too unpalatable for the consumption of Russian officials. On the basis of this knowledge, the Fifth’s palpable air of protest is all the more admirable.

The opening motif of the first movement sets the precedent for the rest of the symphony: a rising interval immediately invalidated by a falling one, a juxtaposition of aspiration and exhaustion. The canon between the upper and lower strings trudges beneath a deeply melancholy melody in the first violins, building towards a brief climax before the bassoons and basses repeat the first motif, in a leaden and grotesque augmentation. We are thrown into a world in a constant battle of melancholy and mechanism. The second subject is defined by the habanera rhythm in the accompanying strings: a subtle tribute to Bizet’s “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, from Carmen. Conductor Vladimir Spivakov theorised that this may be a comment on love in a communist society. After all, what space is left for love in the well oiled machine of Stalin’s regime? The apparent sonata form is rudely interrupted by the central section: a grotesque march. It gathers in speed as more and more people join in and you feel that this machine’s inexorable journey towards catastrophe cannot be avoided. The state is gathering all before it and marching everybody off into a world devoid of humanity. Shostakovich resists and, in what appears as a superhuman act of will, a huge unison restatement of the opening sad and personal theme, this time fortissimo and liberated, brings the march to a halt. Perhaps it is possible to withstand a regime’s oppression; perhaps there could be freedom after all. But at the climax the marching rhythms fight back and it appears that they are the victors after all. As the army departs you hear their distant fanfares and all that is left of the people’s resistance is a lonely weeping violin solo. Maybe that will be enough. Certainly the battle is not yet over.

The Scherzo is one of the most bitingly satirical movements Shostakovich has ever penned. Opening with heavy-footed, sunken dance rhythms, the expected dance-like character isn’t immediately apparent. Shostakovich subverts this with a trite and excessively saccharin violin melody, which is usurped by the orchestra, transforming it into a galumphing parody of itself.

The Largo is the emotional core of the Fifth Symphony, and its power lies in its poignant melodies. Shostakovich chooses to exclude the brasses. Wistful cries from the oboe, a sobbing upwelling of notes from the clarinet, and a brief comment from the flute follow before the whole orchestra comes together, amidst quivering string tremolos, in heart-wrenching sadness. The pain is unbearable at times but it is not unhappy music, just deeply, deeply sad. If it is at all possible to pay tribute to every one of the seven million executions that it is estimated that Stalin ordered between 1935 and 1941, Shostakovich has done so. After all the anger and sorrow the overriding but unanswerable question is ‘Why?’.

The finale treads the fine line between sincerity and cynicism, also giving us the only concrete evidence of Shostakovich’s attitude when writing the symphony. In the period between the withdrawal of his Fourth and the writing of the Fifth, Shostakovich privately set a series of poems by Alexander Pushkin to music. The most notable of these is the poem ‘Rebirth’:

An artist-barbarian with his lazy brush
Blackens the painting of a genius
And senselessly he covers it with
His own illegitimate drawing.

But with the passing years, the alien colours
Fall off like threadbare scales;
The creation of the genius emerges
before us in its former beauty

Thus vanish the illusions
From my tormented soul
And in it appear visions
Of original and innocent times.

The appropriateness of this poem isn’t hard to miss. Shostakovich directly ‘quotes’ this in this movement, giving a slither of concrete evidence free of interpretation. As the harps play, it seems there is a possibility of surviving, the rebirth of a whole people is not an impossible utopia. Time has passed, the lies of the Stalin regime have finally crumbled, the truth has emerged. Shostakovich saw the future and was brave enough to depict it, however cryptically he needed in order to survive. In this sense the coda of the work is a victory but it is a victory against Stalin, not for him. Music’s innate ambiguity was to be Shostakovich’s saving. There is no way he would have been able to pretend to give Stalin the upbeat ending he insisted on in any other medium. Stalin demanded exultation. ‘What exultation could there be?’ Shostakovich is quoted as saying in Testimony, his memoirs.

It’s recorded that the premiere received a 40 minute standing ovation. Many of the audience were in tears. Fundamentally they were tears of gratitude that someone had had the extraordinary courage and ability to write about their times in a way that was true but also permissible. They had a voice after all. The repeated notes that end the work are shocking. That they are repeated 252 times is a sign that Shostakovich knew the battle would be a long time in winning. He knew there would be millions more deaths before the truth was discovered. Listening today to the music it is hard to imagine how anyone could have been taken in by Shostakovich’s double speak. Perhaps they weren’t. Perhaps even Stalin realised that on this occasion he had been outwitted and had no choice but to let the people’s champion get away with it. With this work Shostakovich was able to usher in a cease-fire. Unfortunately, it was not to last long.

Matthew Igoe, Divisions

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