Symphony No. 5 (Shostakovich)

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The Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, by Dmitri Shostakovich is a work for orchestra composed between April and July 1937. Its first performance was on November 21, 1937, in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky. The premiere was a huge success and received an ovation that lasted well over half an hour.[1]


The symphony is approximately 45 minutes in length and has four movements:

  1. ModeratoAllegro non troppo
    This movement is dominated by two main themes and follows the sonata form, which many composers use for the first movement of a symphony, consisting of three sections, the exposition, the development and the recapitulation. The symphony opens with a strenuous string figure in canon, initially leaping and falling in minor sixths then narrowing to minor thirds. Then, we hear a broadly lyric first theme played by the violins. Later on we hear the second theme, which is built out of octaves and sevenths. Then, the two themes are expanded in the development section, by having different instruments playing them, and in different styles, including a march section. Next, we come to the recapitulation section, where themes heard earlier on are brought back again. Near the end of the movement, theme two is heard again in the form of a canon played by flute and horn, then the same material is played by the violin and piccolo. The movement ends with the celesta playing a rising figure, and slowly fading away.
  2. Allegretto
    This movement is in the scherzo form, or A, B, A form. The movement opens with a heavy, loud introduction, followed by a softer solo on the E clarinet. There is also a theme played by the woodwinds that we will hear later on. Then, we get to the trio section, where the harp, violin, and cello are the three voices. Then the trio instruments move to the strings, flute, and bassoon. In the recapitulation section, some of the material we heard earlier on in the movement is played again, but soft and short, compared to the loud and long style used at the start. And the movement ends as it started, sounding like an off-kilter music-box.
  3. Largo
    This movement gives perfect contrast to the finale; it sounds beautiful. The opening theme is played by the third violins. second and first violins are slowly added and continue the melody. After the assertive trumpets of the first movement and the raucous horns of the second, this movement uses no brass at all, so there is a limited palette of sounds. Then, a flute solo plays a melody from the first movement. Then the solo is passed on to the oboe with the strings accompanying. Then, the music builds to a point where that same material is being played by the cellos. The third movement ends like the first, with a celesta solo that slowly fades away. The strings are divided throughout the entire movement (3 groups of violins, violas in 2, cellos in 2; basses in 2).
  4. Allegro non troppo
    This movement, in A-B-A structure, comes out of nowhere. Starting from the opening A section, after an opening phrase, the melodies are expanded until we get to a new theme played on the trombone. This new theme is passed on to the strings and eventually the piece becomes quiet after the opening theme is played again for the last time on the brass. After this, the B section appears, which is much quieter and more tranquil. After the B section is a march section, where the melodies from A are played like a funeral dirge while a new accompaniment on the timpani is heard. Then the music builds and builds, as the new accompaniment passes from timpani to woodwinds and then to strings, until we get to a point where the piece changes from a minor key into a major key starting from the coda. This would symbolize good defeating evil, victory, celebration, and whether or not this is sincere on Shostakovich's part is a point that is still debated today.


The work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets and E clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three B trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, two harps (one part), piano, celesta and strings.



The Symphony quotes Shostakovich's song Vozrozhdenije (Op. 46 No. 1, composed in 1936–37), most notably in the last movement, which uses a poem by Alexander Pushkin (find text and a translation here) that deals with the matter of rebirth. This song is by some considered to be a vital clue to the interpretation and understanding of the whole symphony.[2] In addition, commentators have noted that Shostakovich incorporated a motif from the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen into the first movement, a reference to Shostakovich's earlier infatuation with a woman who refused his offer of marriage; she subsequently moved to Spain and married a man named Roman Carmen.[3][4]


With the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich gained an unprecedented triumph, with the music appealing equally—and remarkably—to both the public and official critics, though the overwhelming public response to the work initially aroused suspicions among certain officials. The then-head of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Mikhail Chulaki, recalls that certain authorities bristled at Mravinsky's gesture of lifting the score above his head to the cheering audience, and a subsequent performance was attended by two plainly hostile officials, V.N. Surin and Boris M. Yarustovsky, who tried to claim in the face of the vociferous ovation given the symphony that the audience was made up of "hand-picked" Shostakovich supporters.[5] Yet the authorities in due course claimed that they found everything they had demanded of Shostakovich restored in the symphony. Meanwhile, the public heard it as an expression of the suffering to which it had been subjected by Stalin. The same work was essentially received two different ways.[6]

Alexei Tolstoy's review set the official tone toward the Fifth Symphony.


An article reportedly written by the composer appeared in the Moscow newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva a few days before the premiere of the Fifth Symphony. There, he reportedly states that the work "is a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism." Whether Shostakovich or someone more closely connected with the Party actually wrote the article is open to question,[7] but the phrase "justified criticism"—a reference to the denunciation of the composer in 1936—is especially telling.[8] Official critics treated the work as a turnaround in its composer's career, a personal perestroyka or "restructuring" by the composer, with the Party engineering Shostakovich's rehabilitation as carefully as it had his fall a couple of years earlier.[7] Like the Pravda attack at that time on the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the political basis for extolling the Fifth Symphony was to show how the Party could make artists bow to its demands.[7] It had to show that it could reward as easily and fully as it could punish.[7]

The official tone toward the Fifth Symphony was further set by a review by Alexei Tolstoy, who likened the symphony to the literary model of the Soviet Bildungsroman describing "the formation of a personality"—in other words, of a Soviet personality.[6] In the first movement, the composer-hero suffers a psychological crisis giving rise to a burst of energy. The second movement provides respite. In the third movement, the personality begins to form: "Here the personality submerges itself in the great epoch that surrounds it, and begins to resonate with the epoch."[9] With the finale, Tolstoy wrote, came victory, "an enormous optimistic lift."[9] As for the ecstatic reaction of the audience to the work, Tolstoy claimed it showed Shostakovich's perestroyka to be sincere. "Our audience is organically incapable of accepting decadent, gloomy, pessimistic art. Our audience responds enthusiastically to all that is bright, clear, joyous, optimistic, life-affirming."[9]

Not everyone agreed with Tolstoy, even after another article reportedly by the composer echoed Tolstoy's views. Asafiev, for one, wrote, "This unsettled, sensitive, evocative music which inspires such gigantic conflict comes across as a true account of the problems facing modern man—not one individual or several, but mankind."[10] The composer himself seemed to second this view long after the fact, in a conversation with author Chinghiz Aitmatov in the late 1960s. "There are far more openings for new Shakespeares in today's world," he said, "for never before in its development has mankind achieved such unanimity of spirit: so when another such artist appears, he will be able to express the whole world in himself, like a musician."[10]


During the first performance of the symphony, people were reported to have wept during the Largo movement.[11] The music, steeped in an atmosphere of mourning, contained echoes of the panikhida, the Russian Orthodox requiem. It also recalled a genre of Russian symphonic works written in memory of the dead, including pieces by Glazunov, Steinberg, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. Typical of these works is the use of the tremolo in the strings as a reference to the hallowed ambience of the requiem.[12]

Symphony as artistic salvation[edit]

After the symphony had been performed in Moscow, Heinrich Neuhaus called the work "deep, meaningful, gripping music, classical in the integrity of its conception, perfect in form and the mastery of orchestral writing—music striking for its novelty and originality, but at the same time somehow hauntingly familiar, so truly and sincerely does it recount human feelings."[13]

Shostakovich returned to the traditional four-movement form and a normal-sized orchestra. More tellingly, he organized each movement along clear lines, having concluded that a symphony cannot be a viable work without firm architecture. The harmonic idiom in the Fifth is less astringent, more tonal than previously, and the thematic material is more accessible. Nevertheless, every bar bears its composer's personal imprint. It has been said that, in the Fifth Symphony, the best qualities of Shostakovich's music, such as meditation, humor and grandeur, blend in perfect balance and self-fulfillment.[14]

Post-Testimony response[edit]

The final movement, often being criticized for sounding shrill[by whom?], is declared in Testimony to be a parody of shrillness, representing "forced rejoicing." In the words attributed to the composer in Testimony (a work, although attributed to Shostakovich himself, is shown to have serious flaws in its credibility[15][16]) :

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."[17]

This is symbolized by the repeated "A"'s at the end of the final movement in the string and upper woodwind sections.[18] It includes a quotation from the composer's song "Rebirth," accompanying the words "A barbarian painter" who "blackens the genius's painting."[19] In the song, the barbarian's paint falls away and the original painting is reborn. It has been suggested that the barbarian and the genius are Stalin and Shostakovich respectively.[citation needed] The work is largely sombre despite the composer's official claim that he wished to write a positive work.[a fact or an opinion?]

While most performances and recordings of the symphony have ended with a gradual acceleration of the coda, especially Leonard Bernstein's October 1959 Columbia Records recording with the New York Philharmonic (following a performance in Moscow in the presence of the composer), more recent renditions have reflected a different interpretation (though not clearly provable) of Shostakovich's intention.[citation needed] Vasily Petrenko's 2008 recording, with his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on Naxos, exemplifies this "forced rejoicing" interpretation extremely clearly.[citation needed] Shostakovich's friend and colleague Mstislav Rostropovich conducted the closing minutes in a much slower, subdued manner, never accelerating; he did this in a performance in Russia with the National Symphony Orchestra and in their commercial Teldec recording. He told CBS that Shostakovich had written a "hidden message" in the symphony, which is allegedly supported by the composer's words in Testimony.[citation needed]

Nowadays, it is one of his most popular symphonies.[20]

Notable recordings[edit]

Notable recordings of this symphony include:

Orchestra Conductor Record Company Year of Recording Format
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra Yevgeny Mravinsky Melodiya (now on DOREMI CD) 1938 (premiere recording) 78 (now CD)
Philadelphia Orchestra Leopold Stokowski Music & Arts 1939 CD
New York Philharmonic Dimitri Mitropoulos Urania 1952 CD
New York Philharmonic Leonard Bernstein Sony Classical 1959 CD
Hallé Orchestra Sir John Barbirolli BBC Legends 1966 CD
Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra Kiril Kondrashin Melodiya 1975 CD
Philadelphia Orchestra Eugene Ormandy RCA Victor Red Seal 1975 CD
Chicago Symphony Orchestra André Previn EMI Classics 1977 CD
New York Philharmonic Leonard Bernstein Sony Classical 1979(1) CD
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra Yevgeny Mravinsky Erato Records 1982 CD
USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra Gennady Rozhdestvensky Melodiya 1984 CD
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Vladimir Ashkenazy Decca Records 1987 CD
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra Vladimir Fedoseyev JVC 1991(2) CD
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Georg Solti Decca Records 1993 CD
Philadelphia Orchestra Riccardo Muti EMI Classics 1993 CD
National Symphony Orchestra Mstislav Rostropovich Deutsche Grammophon 1994 CD
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Charles Mackerras Royal Philharmonic 1994 CD
WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne Rudolf Barshai Brilliant Classics 1995-1996 CD
Prague Symphony Orchestra Maxim Shostakovich Supraphon 1996 CD
Philharmonia Orchestra Vladimir Ashkenazy Signum UK 2001(3) CD
Kirov Orchestra Valery Gergiev Philips Classics 2002 CD
London Symphony Orchestra Mstislav Rostropovich LSO Live 2004 CD
London Philharmonic Orchestra Kurt Masur LPO 2004 CD
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra Yuri Temirkanov Warner Classics 2005(4) CD
Russian National Orchestra Yakov Kreizberg Pentatone 2006 CD
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Bernard Haitink Decca Records 1981 CD
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Yoel Levi Telarc 1989 CD
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi Oleg Caetani Arts Music CD
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Mariss Jansons EMI Classics 1997 CD
BBC National Orchestra of Wales Mark Wigglesworth BIS Records CD
Berlin Symphony Orchestra Kurt Sanderling Berlin Classics CD
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Vasily Petrenko Naxos Records [2008] CD
San Francisco Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas SFS CD
San Francisco Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas SFS (5) DVD
Boston Symphony Orchestra Andris Nelsons Deutsche Grammophon 2015(6) CD
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Manfred Honeck Reference Recordings 2017 CD/SACD

(1) = recorded live at Bunka Kaikan, Tokyo, Japan
(2) = recorded in Moscow during start of 1991 Soviet coup d'etat attempt
(3) = recorded live in Tokyo
(4) = recorded live in Birmingham
(5) = recorded live at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London
(6) = recorded live at Symphony Hall, Boston 11/2015; Winner of 2017 Grammy for Orchestral Performance
Source: (recommended recordings selected based on critics reviews)


  1. ^ As witnessed by the director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Mikhail Chulaki: see Wilson (2006), p.158
  2. ^ BBC Radio 3 Discovering Music, retrieved on 25 April 2009.
  3. ^ Andrew Clark (2009-03-14). "A Liverpool orchestra at its peak". Financial Times. Retrieved 2009-05-14.
  4. ^ Stephen Johnson. "Shostakovich: A Journey Into Light". BBC Radio 3. Retrieved 2009-05-14.
  5. ^ Wilson (2006), pp.158-9
  6. ^ a b Maes, 353.
  7. ^ a b c d Maes, 304.
  8. ^ Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, 183.
  9. ^ a b c Quoted in Taruskin, Richard "Public Lies and Unspeakable Truth," 32.
  10. ^ a b Sollertinsky, 84.
  11. ^ MacDonald, 123-124.
  12. ^ Maes, 354-355.
  13. ^ Sollertinsky, 82-83.
  14. ^ Schwarz, New Grove, 17:267.
  15. ^ Basner, Veniamin; Karayev, Kara; Levitin, Yuri; Khachaturian, Karen; Tishchenko, Boris; Weinberg, Mieczysław (2005). "A Pitiful Fake ("Zhalkaia poddelka"): About the So-Called "Memoirs" of D. D. Shostakovich (1979). Letter to the editor of Literaturnaia gazeta.". In Brown, Malcolm Hamrick (ed.). A Shostakovich Casebook. Indiana University Press. p. 80. ISBN 9780253218230.
  16. ^ Taruskin, Richard (26 August 2016). "Was Shostakovich a Martyr? Or Is That Just Fiction?". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  17. ^ Volkov, 183.
  18. ^ Volkov, Testimony, 183.
  19. ^ Wilson, 127.
  20. ^ Wright, Craig (2010). Listening to Western Music. Cengage Learning. p. 353. ISBN 978-1-4390-8347-5.


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