Classical Music Hour withÂ Fran
Every week, I am inundated with questions from every single person I know. Questions like, âFran, did you ever write about classical music when you were in college?â or âFran, what did you write your junior history thesis aboutâââwas it limited to Shostakovich or more all-encompassing of classical music under Stalin?â or âFran, how did you, specifically, pull all-nighters in college in a way that was the least harmful to your academic career?â Enough! Enough, I say. Once and for all, I will finally write about my history junior thesis topic, which was Dmitri Shostakovichâs SymphonyÂ â5.
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 â5, however, couldnât be further from that. But I am returning to the same London Symphony Orchestra recording fromÂ 2011.
To recap, generally, on what led to Shostakovichâs Symphony â5 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 rogueâs gallery picked off the composerâs main circleâââeither killing or disappearing those close to himâââShostakovich 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 didnât think this metaphor throughÂ enough.
So about a year later, Shostakovich returns to the scene with his Symphony â5 and itâs this huge, mind-blowing success. âShostyâs back, baby,â 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 Stalinâs little boy now? Or is this a deeply subversive piece of music that reflect its composerâs anguish and horror at what was happening aroundÂ him?
I chose Symphony â5 because I also want to write about pieces that are difficult to listen to. Iâve 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 â5 is. As you start its first movement, the ModerateâââAllegro non troppo, itâs going to make you uneasy. The bold opening on the cellos is unsettling and frightening. It doesnât 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 â5 is intended to be heroâs journeyâââperhaps Shostakovichâs himselfâââand it begins where he does, at a point of hesitation andÂ 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. Hereâs where things start to get interesting. Rather than go from its uneasy first movement into a slow, thoughtful Largoâââa narrative choice that would perhaps capture the tragedy of the Soviet empireâââSymphony â5 gets kind ofâŠ funny? Tongue-in-cheek? Itâs like the musical equivalent of saying, âChill out, weâre all fine here,â while your eyes get real wide to signal you need help. Itâs no less playful than your Saint-SaĂ«ns or your Beethoven, but it feels so much more twisted. Thereâs a melody right at the 0:52 mark that feels particularly conniving and unsettling, as if it was meant to represent Stalinâs manipulation of the arts sceneÂ itself.
As Symphony â5 slows down with its Largo, Shostakovich takes the time to present music that is complicated and difficult about grief and loss. This isnât the type of rich melody weâre used to in DvoĆĂĄkâs? Symphony From The New World. It goes back and forth between low, haunting melodies and sharp, stressful strings. Itâs easy to lose your place in it, as Iâd say is the case with actual grief. Itâs cautious. Itâs nervous. Itâs not meant to soothe or pay tribute to something; itâs meant to sink in. When the theme from the first movement returns around the 8:31 mark, it doesnât provide a sense of relief. Itâs not an âoh, I know this,â itâs an âoh, itâsÂ back.â
If you know anything from Symphony â5, 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 symphonyâs 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 donât 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, âEverything is actually extremely fine.â
I donât 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, Iâm not going to say he didnât, but above all else: Symphony â5 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 doesnât owe you comfort. Thereâs no reason to comfort the masses. They donât needÂ it.