The Shostakovich 5

When Gary Nicholson, conductor of the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony, first announced what our major project would be for the second semester, I admit that I wasn’t overly thrilled with playing the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. At the time, I viewed the composer as one who drifted in limbo between the romantic era of classical music, which has long been my favorite genre, and the contemporary age, which I detested for its abstract and atonal noise. My opinion did not change after I listened to the fifty-minute work. The jumping intervals and the clashing chords, the sudden accelerandos and ritardandos, and the layers upon layers of combating melodies, none of it made sense, and more than that, it wasn’t enjoyable to listen to.

The thematic or programmatic element to the piece was absent: a rousing first movement conveying the work’s story; a gentle, delicate second movement reminiscent of the composer’s more profound sentiments; a light third movement, almost playful to pique the audience’s mood; and a dashing fourth movement that hurtles through a sea of notes with resounding energy. Symphonies in general present very clear, clean, audience-friendly themes that stick in the mind indefinitely. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which the Youth Symphony played the previous year, is a prime example. Like many of the major works I’ve experienced, this was not only a satisfying piece to put together for its difficulty and enormous sound, it was fun to play. Within pages almost black with notes, there were many passages where the combination of all the various melodies, harmonies, and rhythms sent shivers cascading down my spine and euphoric rushes through my chest. The week following our performance, the symphony found me working off the residual energy Tchaikovsky’s work left behind.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony did not have this euphoric energy. The music was not beautiful, elegant, or triumphant. It hammered through the concert halls harshly, at times almost screaming with passion, at other moments murmuring to each listener in desolation. It was a piece of extremes, and to the audience, the music was uncomfortable to listen to. For the musicians, the discomfort was more so, as each of us shaped the sound to project relentlessly and hostilely, to the point where our conductor offered us ear plugs for hearing protection. Shostakovich wrote this work with the intent to create an atmosphere of darkness. The life he lived, the difficulties he endured under Stalin’s Soviet Union regime, it all comes out in this symphony.

To fully appreciate the impact of the piece, I needed to know the circumstances under which the piece was written. Soviet Union leaders allowed only a narrow criterion for acceptable behavior regarding beliefs, ideologies, and entertainment. For much of his adult life, Shostakovich lived in fear that the government would kill him if his music did not emulate Soviet ideals, as they had done to many of his friends and family. As a result, he kept a suitcase packed at all times in the event that the police came in the middle of the night to make him “disappear.”

This fear manifested itself with the government’s response to his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, a work that was well received by the common people but condemned by government officials, including Stalin himself, for its disregard of socialistic ideals. Shostakovich was censored and threatened with the fate of his friends and family if he could not “rehabilitate” himself. In fear of further denunciation, the composer forewent premiering his Fourth Symphony, a choice that probably saved his life, and composed the Fifth Symphony, which he aptly described as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism.” The work was a satire of the government that said everything without uttering a single word.

The symphony, I discovered, also proved to be a unique expression of honest emotion. Within the bizarre intervals and harrowing runs, an entire civilization cried out against a tyrannical regime: the percussion’s strong steady beats projected the absolute power of the government, while the strings and woodwinds emulated the pain of the common people. The brass completed this collage with dark, powerful tones, simultaneously supporting the militaristic strength and suffering of the people. The more I listened to the work, and the more I played it, the more these elements became clearer and revealed the essence of the USSR in ways a history class never could.

The technique required to play the notes, with few exceptions, was nothing new. The agility I needed to execute the fast passages had developed over a decade of dedicated work, and my ear was well trained to discern the delicate impurities in intonation. Time, rhythm, dynamics, all of the basic instructions were there in the music, directing us through the foundations of the symphony. Even with all of those mechanics well-practiced and executed with precision, the piece was not complete. Notes and technique were only one part of a work like this, and more often than not, they weren’t the most important aspect. A piece like the Shostakovich 5 fed and thrived off of raw, unrefined emotion and challenged the player to sustain the music by tapping into his or her own emotional well. That part alone made the piece an entirely different animal from most other works in classical music.

The orchestra improved with each rehearsal. In turn, so did the music. Players cleaned passages up, and the group moved more as a unit through the varying tempos. Yet, as the technical aspect of the symphony gelled, the emotional half of the piece became harder, and more exhausting, as we delved more into the music, drawing upon ourselves to bring out its full effect. But the more we worked at it, the more the orchestra understood what Shostakovich was depicting.

The convoluted maze of chords and intervals unwound into dark, threatening passages looming overhead ominously in the first movement. Heavy, sluggish rhythms burdened the momentum of the piece before slipping softly into an eerie melody of pure tones. Precise militaristic beats overcame the softness and broke into a dark projection of an oppressive, paranoid power patrolling the music. This oppressive tone, linked to the first conflict of the piece and the overwhelming fear that rose from it, converged into a powerful iteration of the main theme, intensified by complete unison within the brass and strings. Further along, shivers occasionally skittered up and down my spine as the threatening motive submerged back into the music, leaving but a haunting shadow behind to linger over the orchestra and the audience.

The same shadow slipped into the next movement. A piece that would have been a graceful waltz fit for any ballroom instead morphed into a heavy, clumsy thing. Sharpness where there ordinarily would have been gentility led to sluggishness and constant stark contrasts, destroying any elegance the dance might have had. Together, these elements painted a deeply sarcastic image, full of sardonic characters and mocking the formal affairs of government officials. The scathing anger that the composer wrote this movement in cut clearly through the music and spoke directly of Stalin’s officials: a twisted dance reflecting the façade the USSR showed on its surface, and the true cruelty that marked the reality.

The subsequent movement, the third in Shostakovich’s masterpiece, was no different. Set in a laboriously slow tempo, each note was crafted to emit one anguished cry at a time in a nation full of anguished cries. The music painted a dreadful image of people beaten down to their bare bones in the harsh, callous winters of the Northern Hemisphere, with one person after another releasing expressions of quiet despair. Soon, each individual cry merge into one, breaking free from the silence the iron regime held them in, and the piece pushed into a howling crescendo. The resolution, after such intense despondency, dissipated into a soft, harmonious chord, then died away to nothingness. A peaceful end that hadn’t previously existed.

The final movement of the work was anything but peaceful. The orchestra swelled angrily into a percussive, combative theme that escalated progressively as the movement continued. Before, I had heard nothing more than a bombastic tirade from the brass and reckless sawing from the strings; now, I recognized the unified rage that warred among the different sections of the ensemble, and the frenzied energy that built, and built, and built. Small references back to earlier sections of the symphony emerged within the movement, like memories, and pushed through the anger of the piece, calling back every emotion that had transpired in the symphony and inflaming them to the point of combustion.

That explosion, the final arrival point of the symphony, defined the irony that laced the entire work: the brass, strong and powerful, rang through the hall with a triumphant call, expressing the power of the USSR and the immovable strength it wielded. Underneath that call, the woodwinds and strings hammered out one note in one constant rhythm as loudly and intensely as each musician was capable of producing. That single note, an A, represented what the USSR did to the people: pound them into the ground, whipping them, hammering them, beating them into submission.

The work, when I performed it in the final concert, was draining emotionally, physically, and mentally. I didn’t walk out of the concert hall with a high, or energized from the piece, like I had with Tchaikovsky. Instead, I walked out of the front doors in a dreary mood, the ghosts of the symphony’s dissonant melodies echoing through my head.


ErinErin Maloy is a college student interested in ancient history, music, and law enforcement. In her free time, she swims and bikes.