How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Listen To Shostakovich's 'Symphony -5'

Classical Music Hour with Fran

Image: fusion-of-horizons

Every week, I am inundated with questions from every single person I know. Questions like, “Fran, did you ever write about classical music when you were in college?” or “Fran, what did you write your junior history thesis about — was it limited to Shostakovich or more all-encompassing of classical music under Stalin?” or “Fran, how did you, specifically, pull all-nighters in college in a way that was the least harmful to your academic career?” Enough! Enough, I say. Once and for all, I will finally write about my history junior thesis topic, which was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony №5.

When I wrote about Shostakovich not all that long ago for this column, I picked one of his later and most palatable pieces: Festive Overture. Festive Overture is short and sweet and succinct and fun. It was Shostakovich post-Stalin, feeling a little lighter and more buoyant, musically. Symphony №5, however, couldn’t be further from that. But I am returning to the same London Symphony Orchestra recording from 2011.

To recap, generally, on what led to Shostakovich’s Symphony №5 being the tricky puzzle it would become: following the premiere of his opera, Lady Macbeth, Shostakovich was more or less blacklisted by the Russian propaganda newspaper Pravda. As Stalin and his rogue’s gallery picked off the composer’s main circle — either killing or disappearing those close to him — Shostakovich slowly withdrew from public society. Dude was scared to make art. I get it. I am constantly afraid to tweet something bad for fear all of my friends will, uh, mute me? I didn’t think this metaphor through enough.

So about a year later, Shostakovich returns to the scene with his Symphony №5 and it’s this huge, mind-blowing success. “Shosty’s back, baby,” reads Pravda (Pravda did not write that). But Shostakovich gets all of these high-ranking Communist officials back on his side. Stalin loves him again. And the symphony, widely regarded as a masterpiece, is good, but it also leaves everyone wondering: Did Shostakovich sell out? Is he Stalin’s little boy now? Or is this a deeply subversive piece of music that reflect its composer’s anguish and horror at what was happening around him?

I chose Symphony №5 because I also want to write about pieces that are difficult to listen to. I’ve focused heavily on pieces that are, well, genuinely just nice. Things to calm you, things to soothe you. Help you focus, help you breathe, whatever. That is not what Symphony №5 is. As you start its first movement, the Moderate — Allegro non troppo, it’s going to make you uneasy. The bold opening on the cellos is unsettling and frightening. It doesn’t really fall into a traditional sonata form. Its melodies are abstract, they come and go. But not all music is meant to comfort, not all art is compassionate. Symphony №5 is intended to be hero’s journey — perhaps Shostakovich’s himself — and it begins where he does, at a point of hesitation and fear.

From there, its second movement is actually an Allegretto, whereas most traditional symphonies have a Largo first, that begins with an upbeat melody on the cellos. Here’s where things start to get interesting. Rather than go from its uneasy first movement into a slow, thoughtful Largo — a narrative choice that would perhaps capture the tragedy of the Soviet empire — Symphony №5 gets kind of… funny? Tongue-in-cheek? It’s like the musical equivalent of saying, “Chill out, we’re all fine here,” while your eyes get real wide to signal you need help. It’s no less playful than your Saint-Saëns or your Beethoven, but it feels so much more twisted. There’s a melody right at the 0:52 mark that feels particularly conniving and unsettling, as if it was meant to represent Stalin’s manipulation of the arts scene itself.

As Symphony №5 slows down with its Largo, Shostakovich takes the time to present music that is complicated and difficult about grief and loss. This isn’t the type of rich melody we’re used to in Dvořák’s? Symphony From The New World. It goes back and forth between low, haunting melodies and sharp, stressful strings. It’s easy to lose your place in it, as I’d say is the case with actual grief. It’s cautious. It’s nervous. It’s not meant to soothe or pay tribute to something; it’s meant to sink in. When the theme from the first movement returns around the 8:31 mark, it doesn’t provide a sense of relief. It’s not an “oh, I know this,” it’s an “oh, it’s back.”

If you know anything from Symphony №5, you know its finale. The Allegro non troppo has a wildly famous introduction: high-pitched woodwinds lead into a furious timpani solo. This is one of the timpani parts I cherished the year I played it. Percussion is at the forefront of this movement, not merely there to support the sounds of the rest of the orchestra. At the time of this symphony’s premiere, it was viewed as a highly triumphant piece of work praising the Soviet empire; to me, it has always felt so angry and cathartic. The trumpet solo at the 2:30 mark is like a voice of reason crying out over a sea of strings. This is the equivalent of, I don’t know, pushing a bunch of papers off of a desk. Logging off of Twitter. So when the hopeful melody comes in right before the 3 minute mark, it feels somewhat disingenuous. A plastered-on smile that reads, “Everything is actually extremely fine.”

I don’t know, truly, if this is a big subversive piece of music. It soothes a lot of people to think that Shostakovich wrote this to go against Stalin, and sure, I’m not going to say he didn’t, but above all else: Symphony №5 has always felt like an honest piece of music. A piece of music about fear and anger and how great those two emotions can be. How majestic they are, and how music doesn’t owe you comfort. There’s no reason to comfort the masses. They don’t need it.

Fran Hoepfner is a writer from Chicago. You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.