Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his 5th symphony slightly before World War II, in 1937. The historical context in which he composed it is the ‘Great Purge’ – a Stalinist campaign to rid the Soviet Union of communist dissenters and counter revolutionaries which saw millions of people executed. The only form of approved art at that time was so-called socialist realism, which glorified and celebrated communist values. As well as expressing the ideas behind communism, Soviet art also had to be accessible to everyone rather than a privileged few. This meant that complex Western music such as serialism was not tolerated, and traditional, conservative music had to take its place.
Shostakovich ran up against this censure of creativity in his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District, which was condemned for not depicting communist values. The plot itself was not criticised but the music’s depiction of some of the scenes seemed to be creating a controversial satire. Shortly afterwards he was forced to withdraw his fourth symphony before it had even premiered, after rumours of its ‘formalism’, which was seen as inaccessible and self indulgent bourgeoisie art. Symphony No. 5 had to be different if it was to be accepted, and rather symbolically was written to celebrate the anniversary of the October revolution. It was composed in a conservative, classical style, incorporating folk tunes and expressing a triumphant, heroic mood. When it was first performed in Leningrad, it was so well received that the ovation lasted for well over half an hour. It has been widely speculated that this reception was actually acknowledging Shostakovich’s covert rebellion against Stalin, and that the symphony was not a celebration of communism but a reflection of the people’s courage to stand up to the oppressive regime. Notes on my own response to the symphony are on my listening log.
Harris, S. (2015) Communism and Artistic Freedom At: http://www.quartets.de/articles/realism.html (Accessed on 05.03.2017) Harris, S. (2016) The Lady Macbeth affair At: http://www.quartets.de/articles/Lady_Macbeth.html (Accessed on 05.03.2017) Ross, A. (2012) The Rest is Noise. London: Fourth Estate. pp. 241-258 Wigglesworth, M. (1998) Mark’s notes on Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 5, 6 & 10 At: http://www.markwigglesworth.com/notes/marks-notes-on-shostakovich-symphony-nos-5-6-10 (Accessed on 05.03.2017)