|Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in Historical Context
An introductory paragraph followed by quotes from recent books
Fifth Symphony was written between April 18 and July 20, 1937, in Leningrad. He was
30 years old and his first child (a daughter, Galina) had been born the previous year.
On January 28, 1936, his widely performed opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,
had been attacked in Pravda in an article that included an understood threat
against his life ("This is playing with nonsensical things, which could end very
badly."). The Soviet Union was in the midst of Stalin's "Great
Terror" in 1936 and 1937. Millions were being arrested and tortured then
summarily executed or exiled to Siberia and Central Asia. His sister Mariya was
exiled to Central Asia in 1937 and several other relatives and friends were
disappeared. Marshal Tukhachevsky, an important friend and early patron of
Shostakovich, was arrested and executed at the time that Shostakovich was composing the
Fifth Symphony (arrested on May 27, 1937; his execution was announced to the public on
June 13). In May 1936 Shostakovich had finished his Fourth Symphony which he had
begun composing in 1935. He withdrew it from rehearsal in December under official
pressure and it was not given its first performance until 1961. Lady Macbeth was not
performed again until 1962. His incidental music to Afinogenov's play Salute to
Spain was written in the fall of 1936 and the play was banned soon after its premiere
at Leningrad's Pushkin Theater in late November 1936. In January 1937, he wrote Four
Pushkin Romances, op. 46, a song cycle which was not performed until 1940. The Fifth
Symphony was seen as Shostakovich's public response to the attack on his music and
character that began with the Pravda article.
From Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered:
Between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, Shostakovich wrote only one serious and highly
personal work, the Four Pushkin Romances Op. 46, which remained unperformed until 1940. .
. . But the great importance of the Pushkin Romances is evident in the way that the
composer uses quotations from the first song, 'Rebirth', in the Finale of his Fifth
Symphony. The four notes which set the first three words of that poem ('A barbarian
painter with his somnolent brush/ Blackens the genius' painting,/ Slapping over it
senselessly/ His own lawless picture.') form the kernel of the initial march theme, while
a whole later section makes reference to the lilting accompaniment to the poem's final
quatrain, 'Thus delusions fall off/ My tormented soul/ And it reveals to me visions/ Of my
former pure days.'
Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (Princeton University Press,
1994), page 127.
Note: Chapter 3 of Wilson's book ("Criticism and Response to Criticism," pages
108-147) deals with the events in Shostakovich's life during the last half of the 1930s.
On page 121, Wilson presents a list of friends and relatives of Shostakovich who
were arrested during the Great Terror.
From Richard Taruskin's Defining Russia Musically:
In this poem [Rebirth] a painting that had been defaced but is restored by
time is compared to a spiritual regeneration: "So," the final quatrain runs,
"do delusions vanish from my wearied soul, and visions arise within it of pure
primeval days" . . . In a radio talk delivered in January 1993, the composer
and Shostakovich scholar Gerard McBurney made the intriguing observation that the first
four notes of the "menacing" main theme of the finale coincide in pitch (and
almost in rhythm) with the first four notes of the song, which carry the words khudozhnik-varvar,
Richard Taruskin, Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays
(Princeton University Press, 1997), page 532.
Note: Taruskin's book includes a chapter devoted to historical and musical analysis of
the Fifth Symphony ("Public Lies and Unspeakable Truth: Interpreting the Fifth
Symphony," pages 511-544).
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