Dmitri Shostakovich

Symphony No. 5

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 45–50 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
Time of Creation: 1937
World Premiere: November 21, 1937 (Leningrad)

Table of Contents

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in 5 Sentences

With his Symphony No. 5, Dmitri Shostakovich achieved a balancing act in an exceptional situation: the work was written during the Great Stalinist Terror, an all-out persecution campaign in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich, who was highly endangered after critical newspaper articles about his earlier works, knew what was expected of him: A great work that served to glorify the regime and followed the pattern of “per aspera ad astra” (as with the great models Beethoven 5, Tchaikovsky 5 and Mahler 5). He met these requirements in Symphony No. 5 – apparently.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5

Highlight 1: Expressive opening gesture

I know of no work as consistently ambiguous in its “ideology” as Shostakovich’s Fifth. Shostakovich really accomplished a great feat with it (on which his life depended).

It begins with the opening gesture: the wild leaps up and down were naturally interpreted by Soviet critics as a “heroic struggle”. But is a Stalin admirer really fighting here? Couldn’t one also hear these jumps, which on top of that “pursue each other”, as “taking a stand” – AGAINST Stalin?

Highlight 2: A pretended ländler

The second movement sounds harmless, downright “funny” on superficial listening. On one level, Shostakovich says, “Dear Stalin, we are so grateful for the great life we have in the Soviet Union, praise be to you.” On the other level, there are strange discords, the music seems to take a wrong turn…maybe it’s not all so funny after all?

Highlight 3: Aggressiveness

The last movement begins with a big climax, after which the timpani kicks in with an aggressive figure. Aggressiveness was not unwelcome in Soviet criticism, especially…

Highlight 4: Prescribed triumph

…when followed by such a triumphant final march as here. It is really very easy to hear this ending as positive and full of joy. But did Shostakovich really mean that? This final march is so exaggerated, so distorted, that it sounds more like “prescribed joy” to me:

3 Questions and Answers about Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5

Question 1: Is Shostakovich's 5th Symphony program music?

Shostakovich feigns a program faithful to the regime in his 5th Symphony, which Soviet critics unanimously described as follows: First movement – heroic tragedy. Second movement – expression of healthy joie de vivre. Third movement – meditation. Fourth movement – achievement of victory.

Question 2: What is special about Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5?

In addition to the oppressive circumstances of its composition and the feigned program, on the technical level, the use of the piano as an orchestral instrument is most noteworthy: Shostakovich uses the piano to achieve short, concise sounds.

Question 3: Was Shostakovich's 5th Symphony successful?

Yes. Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony was an audience success from the beginning, especially because of the final march, which was seen as a triumphal march for the Stalin regime. The applause after the premiere is said to have lasted for over half an hour. Shostakovich’s deception had thus succeeded, with the result that he was now more often misused for propaganda – which, however, he also skillfully resisted time and again, for example in his Symphony No. 9.

2 Recommended Recordings of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5

Recording 1: WDR Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov (video production, 2007)

A stunning interpretation of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony comes from the WDR Sinfonieorchester under the baton of its then principal conductor Semyon Bychkov:

Recording 2: WDR Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck (live, 2022)

It is exciting to compare two different recordings where the same orchestra is playing but a different conductor is at work. Here, the WDR Sinfonieorchester also plays, but the conductor is Manfred Honeck:

1 Quote about Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5

The ending sounds not like a Kehraus (and certainly not like a triumph or victory), but like a punishment or revenge on someone.

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