Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dmitri's Fifth

"The government would have been delighted to execute him [Shostakovich], but it so happened that the ovations after the Fifth Symphony lasted more than 40 minutes. They had never seen such an audience success. And of course the government knew that, so they put a face on it, saying 'We've taught him and now he's writing acceptable music.'" - Mstislav Rostropovich on the official Soviet reaction of the Fifth Symphony
The San Antonio Symphony plays a monumental work by Dmitri Shostakovich this weekend at the Majestic.  We thought we'd share some background on this amazing work, the Symphony No. 5 in d minor, Opus 47.

It is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets and E-flat clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, two harps (one part), piano, celesta and strings; and written in four movements:
The symphony opens with a strenuous string figure in canon, initially leaping and falling in minor sixths then narrowing to minor thirds. The sharply-dotted rhythm of this figure remains to accompany a broadly lyric melody played by the first violins. Variants of this theme return throughout the 3rd & 4th movements. The second theme is built out of octaves and sevenths. Whereas the 1st theme is based on a sharp dotted rhythm, the 2nd relies on a static long-short-short pattern. With that, we have all the musical material for this movement—one that is tremendously varied, its climax harsh. The coda, with the gentle friction of minor in strings against chromatic scales in celesta, ends on a note of haunting ambiguity.

The opening motif in this waltz-like scherzo is a variation of the first theme of the first movement; other variations can be detected throughout the movement. The music remains a witty, biting satire—gay, raucous while also nervous, its energies playfully discharged in an episode of comic relief with its roots in Prokofiev and especially Mahler.

After the assertive trumpets of the first movement and the raucous horns of the second, this movement uses no brass at all. The strings are divided throughout the entire movement (3 groups of violins, violas in 2, cellos in 2; the basses remain unison) . Shostakovich fills this movement with beautiful, long melodies—one of them again based on the first theme of the first movement—punctuating them with intermezzi of solo woodwinds. Harp and celesta play prominent roles here as well. The music is emotive and even elegiac in tone; it returns to the sober mood which the scherzo interrupts.

4.Allegro non troppo
This movement picks up the march music from the climax of the opening movement, at least in manner if not in specific material. A tense conclusion leads to the quieter section of the piece. This section ends and the short snare drum and timpani solo introduce a brief militaristic introduction to the finale of the movement—an extended and obsessive reiteration of the D major tonality.

The late 1930's were not a good time for Dmitri Shostakovich. His successful opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was banned after Stalin saw it in 1936 and was offended by its veiled criticism of the Communist regime. This was no small matter; most who drew the dictator's wrath soon died in a labor camp. Shostakovich was luckier, perhaps because the young composer had already achieved some international recognition, but the attacks in Pravda turned him into a pariah who began keeping a packed suitcase beside his bed in case he were arrested in the night.
Shostakovich's next misstep came with the Fourth Symphony, which he had been composing in his mind for some time. Despite the risk of associating with an "enemy of the people,'' the Leningrad Philharmonic agreed to premiere it, but the rehearsals went badly, and it became clear to Shostakovich that a performance of such a forward-looking work would be dangerous to his life. In December of 1936, he announced that it was a failure and withdrew it, ostensibly to work on the finale. The Fourth was lost during the war, and it was only in 1961 that it was reconstructed and premiered exactly as written.
Meanwhile, Russia was undergoing what would later be called the "Great Terror.'' For his own reasons, Stalin had concocted an assassination and then responded to it with a level of repression rarely seen in human history. After he declared that five percent of the population was "unreliable,'' orders went out that the number of arrests must match this figure. Guilt was irrelevant; it was sufficient to round up ten or fifteen thousand people from a given town and send them off to Siberia. Historians disagree on the exact number of Russian citizens murdered during this time (partly because many of the deaths were later blamed on World War II), but it was certainly in the millions.
In such an atmosphere, and with a wife and two young children to worry about, it was only natural that Shostakovich would pull his head back into his shell and try to please the authorities. And so he did, at least on the surface: the Fifth Symphony's subtitle is "A Soviet Artist's Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism.''
But throughout history, artists have thumbed their noses at authorities who were too dense to see through their parody and satire, and Shostakovich was no different. One does not need to look far beneath the surface of the Fifth to discover just what this "practical'' reply actually contains. The first movement begins with a cry of despair, a tragic lament that goes on for some time before suddenly being interrupted by a goose-stepping march led by a two-note tympani theme, a motive that musicologist Ian MacDonald calls the "Stalin theme.'' The third movement is one of the most despairing pieces of music ever written, a memorial for Mother Russia and all those sent to the labor camps. And of the finale, Shostakovich wrote in his memoirs (smuggled out of Russia after the composer's death):
What exultation could there be? I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat... 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.'' What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.
The Fifth was hugely successful. The government was pleased that the rebel had knuckled under, while the Russian in the street saw the truth behind the facade. Western listeners, generally unaware of what was going on behind Stalin's mask, took the work at face value, yet were still overwhelmed by its grandeur and beauty. The symphony has become Shostakovich's most popular work, and the relatively recent revelation of its true meaning can only enhance our enjoyment of this testament to one man's struggle to express his people's anguish under a brutal tyrant.

Hear Shostakovich's Fifth live this Friday and Saturday at the Majestic. Also on the program are Wagner's Rienzi Overture and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Lilya Zilberstein.

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