Shostakovich's 5th Symphony: A Musical Rebellion?


Yesterday, Dmitri Shostakovich would have been 111. And to celebrate this, it's finally time to write a blog post about my favourite piece. I'm going to try and restrain myself. I know it's a bit cliche to love the piece you studied at A level, but it just goes to show how there's so much to be gained in terms of appreciation from musical study. At least in my opinion.

Shostakovich lived in Soviet Russia, where people's lives were in danger if they were thought, to any extent, to be against Stalin's regime. At night, people would just disappear. People were suffering in many ways, and for a composer, it was hard for this not to come across. Shostakovich's opera 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District' was written before this symphony, and after is premier a scathing report of its music, calling it 'a muddle instead of music' appeared in the national paper. Some argue that the article was written by Stalin himself. Needless to say, Shostakovich feared for his life. People would cross the street to avoid him, so he had to do something.

Enter the fifth symphony, premiered before his even more challenging fourth to save himself further trouble. The composer dubbed this as his response to 'just criticism', and this itself paved the way to what was a very equivocal musical work. Was the criticism 'just' as in fair, or 'just criticism' and no praise? The music offers to helpful solution. Thematically, parts of the music could be seen as military in nature, something to perhaps reinforce the might of Russia. Nationalism, if you like. The piece is full of these grand musical statements of might and power. However, there are also twisted moments, such as very strained high notes, unusual harmonies and harmonic progressions and bending the rules of structure. Perhaps, then, this is a work of apology that serves another purpose - to quietly rebel. Perhaps the moments of might and triumph are about the triumph of Shostakovich himself, the individual, rather than the state. And then, of course, there's the third movement, which is clearly full of emotional turmoil. How did he get away with that? And is it that movement, rather than the triumphant ending, which earned the piece a 30 minute standing ovation at its premier?

But this piece represents more than just a musical rebellion in that sense. Its musical language displays a trend towards a new wave of musical rule breaking. 'Neoclassicism' takes classical structures, harmonies and ideas and begins to (for Shostakovich - cheekily) break them down and almost mock them. To mock, yet be seriously inspired by the past of the art form was something which in my opinion none did better than Shostakovich. And that's barely even scratching the surface of why he is my favourite composer....

Benjamin Jackson