The situation in the Soviet Union was dire indeed: apart from the ever-increasing control of the arts by organs of the state, this was the time of the Great Terror when thousands were executed and millions sent to labor camps in Siberia. Several people close to Shostakovich were among them: his brother-in-law was arrested and his mother-in-law sent to a labor camp. He knew a high-ranking member of the NKVD, Vyacheslav Dombrowsky, who was a violinist and music-lover, and hoped that he might afford some protection, but he was shot and his wife sent to a labor camp.
But it was not Stalin's intention to simply destroy Shostakovich, who was, after all, the Soviet Union's greatest composer, but rather to bring him to heel. To this end Shostakovich was either forced to write (or had written for him) an article in a Moscow newspaper in which he describes his upcoming Symphony No. 5 as "a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism." From now on his music would at least purport to be socialist realist in style. The Composer's Union gave this description:
The main attention of the Soviet composer must be directed towards the victorious progressive principles of reality, towards all that is heroic, bright and beautiful. This distinguishes the spiritual world of Soviet man and must be embodied in musical images of beauty and strength. Socialist realism demands an implacable struggle against the folk-negating modernist directions that are typical of the decay of contemporary bourgeois art, against subservience and servility towards modern bourgeois culture.The thing to understand here is that, despite claims in a famous book by Volkov, Shostakovich was in no sense a dissident. He described himself as "Stalin's monkey". By Stalin's time there were no more dissidents; they were long since shot or sent off to labor camp. They were not indulged. No-one, no matter how talented an artist, spoke truth to power in Stalin's Russia. So when, a few months after withdrawing his Symphony No. 4, Shostakovich began composition of a new symphony, his aim was to survive, to be accepted back into the good graces of the regime.
The Symphony No. 5 was begun in April 1937 and completed in July. The premiere was in November and it is this work that is the first of Shostakovich's great, mature masterpieces. The symphony was a huge success with the audience and, after some initial hesitation, accepted by the critics and arts bureaucrats as a successful example of socialist realism. What did Shostakovich do? This symphony is shorter and more tonal than the previous one. It has much clearer and therefore expressive formal structure and the themes are more expressive. Where the 4th Symphony is still an experimental work, the 5th is not. The challenge he faced caused him to upend and reconstruct his musical style. The style of the symphony is sometimes described as a kind of "doubleness". On the one hand, it captures the suffering and oppression of the Soviet people, especially in the lament of the slow movement, but on the other hand, with the stirring and brilliant use of the brass and percussion, it projects the heroic classicism that the regime was looking for. Here is an excellent Wikipedia article on the work and here is an excellent website courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony that displays the main themes of each movement.
There are four movements:
- Moderato opening with a fierce dotted figure in close imitation followed by a haunting, descending melody on a Phyrgian/whole tone scale built on D. The whole movement will use these two themes.
- Allegretto, a walz-like scherzo using variations on the first movement themes.
- Largo, a dark slow movement using no brass that recalls Russian funeral music
- Allegro non troppo in sonata allegro form with the finale in D major
Now let's listen. UPDATE: Replaced Jansons and the Bayerischen Rundfunks with Valery Gergiev and the BBCSO: