Alexander Fadeyev, head of the Soviet Writers’ Union, found in the music’s assertively luminous conclusion not a sense of resolution, but “a punishment or vengeance on someone.” In “Testimony,” the composer’s memoir, Shostakovich decried the effect: “It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.’”The phrase "In "Testimony," the composer's memoir..." gives us a clue as to where the writer went astray. The book Testimony, though attributed to both Dmitri Shostakovich and Solomon Volkov likely owes very little to the composer but is rather a concoction of Volkov's. Arguments about this have been heated since the book came out and entire volumes have been devoted to evaluating and eventually dismissing most of Volkov's claims to authenticity. Perhaps the most cogent discussion of the issues surrounding the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich is in Richard Taruskin's "Public lies and unspeakable truth: interpreting Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony" (reprinted in Shostakovich Studies, Cambridge University Press). Regarding that controversial finale he writes:
...if we claim to find defiant ridicule in the Fifth Symphony, we necessarily adjudge its composer, at this point in his career, to have been a 'dissident'. That characterisation, popular as it has become, and attractive as it will always be to many, has got to be rejected as a self-gratifying anachronism ... There were no dissidents in Stalin's Russia. There were old opponents to be sure, but by late 1937 they were all dead or behind bars. There were the forlorn and the malcontented, but they were silent.If Shostakovich had indeed written a subversive, symphonic response to Stalin, then he would have suffered the immediate consequences, which he did not. Instead, he was showered with prizes and acclaim by the Soviet apparatus.
Towards the end of Taruskin's essay he offers this conclusion:
We can learn a great deal from the cultural artefacts of the Stalinist period, but only if we are prepared to receive them in their full spectrum of greys.Alongside the example of Shostakovich, we could set that of Prokofiev, who returned to Soviet Russia after being disappointed with his career in the West. He tried, in all sincerity, to write music that would appeal to the people in a heroic way, the basic requirement of "socialist realism." But the "meaning" of music is ambiguous and complex, or can be. So we can discern many strands in a work like the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich and they can include irony, despair, beauty and a thousand other things. Just not, you know, subversive ridicule of Stalin.