Dmitri Schostakovich was the national hero of Russia during the Great Terror. Stalinist Russia was brutally keen overseers of art and disapproved of Schostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. Already on thin ice, Schostakovich chose a more refined approach to his Fifth Symphony compared to the Fourth’s animalistic temperament.
Schostakovich was strongly influenced by Gustav Mahler and Ludwig van Beethoven in their treatment of tonality and form but with a distinctly personal sound. He experimented with the large scale sonata form that draws climactic musical drama within the development of themes and returning motives. The finale is labeled with the tempo marking “alla marcia” to draw emotional underpinnings upon the current political climate at that time. The opening of the finale starts strongly in D minor, drops to a pedal A typical of Beethoven’s compositions that creates heightened intensity towards the end of the music, and ends in an exhilarating D major summation that cannot be mistaken for anything but a classic Mahler finish.
The Fifth Symphony is magical in that it appealed to both the regime and the people. Taruskin labeled the piece as “Stalinist Neoclassism” while it is also ironically easy to see it as “Socialist Surrealism” from an anti-communist standpoint. The piece was received with moving optimism; there were records of weeping and even a thirty minute ovation, perhaps because of the overwhelming grief the people of Russia were feeling during the Great Terror.
Watch: Symphony no. 5, Part 4, Allegro non troppo; New York Philharmonic (cond. Leonard Bernstein)