Program Notes

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 47

BORN: September 25, 1906. Saint Petersburg, Russia
DIED: August 9, 1975. Moscow

COMPOSED: Begun on April 18, 1937, completed three months later, on July 20

WORLD PREMIERE: November 21, 1937. Evgeny Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic

US PREMIERE: April 9, 1938. Artur Rodzinski conducted the NBC Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1941. Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—December 2007. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and high clarinet in E-flat, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, bells, xylophone, 2 harps, piano, celesta, and strings

DURATION: About 50 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Shostakovich was nineteen when his professional life got off to a brilliant start with an amazing First Symphony, a work that soon spread his name abroad. But in 1936, his career ran aground. Stalin decided to see the composer’s much talked-about opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. He was scandalized, and in an article titled “Chaos Instead of Music” Pravda launched a fierce attack on Shostakovich. “Now everyone knew for sure that I would be destroyed,” Shostakovich recalled later. “And the anticipation of that noteworthy event—at least for me—has never left me.” He completed his Fourth Symphony, musically his most adventurous score to date, but withdrew it at the last minute. It was 1961 before he dared allow it to be played.

On April 18, 1937, Shostakovich began a new symphony, his Fifth. He completed it in July and presented it to the public in November. An unidentified reviewer called it “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism,” a formulation subsequently accepted by Shostakovich and indeed often attributed to him. We in the West read such a phrase with a certain embarrassment, and the story of an artist pushed into withdrawing a boldly forward-looking work and recanting with a more conservative one—for that the Fifth undoubtedly is—fits only too readily our perceptions of life in the Soviet Union. Nor do we comfortably accept the idea that “just criticism” couched in the largely meaningless spume of Pravda prose may actually have set the composer on a more productive path, and that “the road not taken”—the road of Lady Macbeth and the Fourth Symphony—was one well abandoned.

What was that road? The most striking features of the big works immediately preceding the Fifth Symphony are dissonance, dissociation, and an exuberant orchestral style. Though the chamber music of Shostakovich’s last years is based on more radical compositional means, the controversial opera and the Fourth Symphony still come across as the most “modern” of his works. We can imagine how, without Pravda’s “just criticism,” he might have traveled further along that road.

In any event, the completion of the Fifth Symphony and the jubilant embracing of it by the public constituted the most significant turning point in Shostakovich’s artistic life. The political rehabilitation was the least of it; just ten years later, at the hands of Andrei Zhdanov and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Shostakovich was subjected to attacks far more vicious and brutish than those of 1936. (A second rehabilitation followed in 1958.) But Shostakovich found a language in which, over the next three decades, he could write music whose strongest pages reveal his voice as one of the most eloquent of his time—in, for example, the Leningrad, Eighth, Tenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth symphonies; the Third, Seventh, Eighth, Twelfth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth string quartets; the Violin Sonata; and the Michelangelo Songs.

THE MUSIC  Shostakovich begins his Fifth Symphony with a gesture at once forceful and questioning, one whose sharply dotted rhythm stays on to accompany the broadly lyric melody that the first violins introduce almost at once. Still later, spun across a pulsation as static as Shostakovich can make it, the violins give out a spacious, serene melody, comfortingly symmetrical (at least when it begins), and with that we have all the material of the first movement. Yet it is an enormously varied movement. Across its great span we encounter transformations that totally detach thematic shapes from their original sonorities, speeds, and worlds of expression. The climax is harsh; the close, with the gentle friction of minor (the strings) and major (the scales in the celesta), is wistfully inconclusive. So convincing is the design that one can hear the movement many times without stopping to think how original it is (a quality it shares with the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique). Shostakovich has discovered that “conservative” does not mean “conventional.”

The scherzo is brief, and it functions as an oasis between the intensely serious first and third movements. Its vein of grotesque humor owes something to Prokofiev and very much more to Mahler.

With the Largo’s first measures we meet a new warmth of sound. To achieve it, Shostakovich has divided the violins into three sections rather than the usual two, while violas and cellos are also split into two sections each. (One of the novelties of the Fifth Symphony is the economy of its orchestral style. In the Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich stints himself nothing; here, like those brilliant orchestral masters Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, he uses a complement by no means extravagant to unpack rich and forceful sonorities.) As in the first movement, Shostakovich proceeds by remarkable transformations and juxtapositions.

The Largo uses no brass at all, but brass is the sound that dominates the finale. This movement picks up the march music—the manner, not the specific material—that formed the climax of the first movement. But the purpose now is to express not threat and tension but triumph. “The theme of my symphony,” the composer declared in 1937, “is the making of a man. I saw man with all his experiences as the center of the composition. . . . In the finale the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and the joy of living.” Just before the coda, there is a moment of lyric repose, and Shostakovich’s biographer D. Rabinovich notes that the accompaniment, first in the violins, then in the harp, for the cello-and-bass recollection of the first movement is a quotation from a Shostakovich song of 1936. It is a setting of Pushkin’s Rebirth, and the crucial text reads: “And the waverings pass away/ From my tormented soul/ As a new and brighter day/ Brings visions of pure gold.” From that moment of reflection the music rises to its assertive final (and Mahlerian) climax.

It works just as it was intended to work, though many a listener may find that the impact and the memory of the questions behind this music are stronger than those of the answer. Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, the controversial “Shostakovich memoirs” published in 1979, includes a passage that seems to embody a truth about the closing moments of the Fifth Symphony. Volkov attributes these words to the composer: “Awaiting execution is a theme that has tormented me all my life. Many pages of my music are devoted to it. Sometimes I wanted to explain that fact to the performers, I thought that they would have a greater understanding of the work’s meaning. But then I thought better of it. You can’t explain anything to a bad performer and a talented person should sense it himself. . . . I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’ What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.”

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

Andrey Boreyko conducting the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (Hänssler Classic)  |  Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live)  |  Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical)  |  Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (Warner Classics)  |  André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (RCA)

Online: Keeping Score: Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

ReadingShostakovich: A Life Remembered, by Elizabeth Wilson (Princeton)  |  Shostakovich: A Life, by Laurel Fay (Oxford)  |  Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich, by Dmitri and Ludmila Sollertinsky (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

(February 2018)

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