Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, Op. 47
Monday 21st November 2016 marks 69 years since the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky, gave the world premiere of Symphony no. 5, op. 47 by Dmitry Shostakovich.
‘Shos 5’ (as it’s often referred to) is one of my all time favourite pieces of music. I feel like I know it very well (and not just the cello part!), having rehearsed it at length and having performed it several times over the years. The first time I performed it, and probably the most memorable for me, was with my youth orchestra, the Lancashire Students Symphony Orchestra (LSSO for short), as it was known then, under the baton of Malcolm Doley. What an amazing experience. Aged 15, we went on tour to Tuscany in Italy and performed this incredible symphony several times over the 10 days that we were away, in some amazing places. Also in the programme was another one of my favourite pieces, Elgar’s concert overture ‘Cockaigne’.
Concerts in Italy didn’t start till 9.30pm and Shostakovich symphony no. 5 is around 50 minutes long and was always in the 2nd half of the concert. Therefore, concerts didn’t finish till very late indeed! I do remember closing my eyes briefly one evening, during the 16 minute ‘Largo’, letting the still, calm yet desolate sounds wash over me…….and then struggling to open them again! (I think anyone who has been on any sort of residential youth orchestra course/tour will empathize with this!) There was no danger of dozing however in the fierce and powerful fourth movement, using full bows on each fortississimo quaver for a whole of the last page or so of music! (See image of score below). Referring to this ending, Erik Levi explains in the CD sleeve notes to Vol. 22, No. 8 of the BBC Music Magazine CD, “Whether this resolution is genuinely optimistic remains an open question given the music’s lugubrious tempo”.
It is interesting to listen to various and vastly different interpretations of the end of the fourth movement and hear the massively contrasting speeds this passage is taken at and how this affects the whole mood of the final movement. Personally, I prefer the slower tempo for the end of the symphony, closer to the actual metronome mark of ‘quaver = 184’ as shown in the example above. This is expertly demonstrated on a live recording, with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the LSO in 2005, (shelved at ORC: SHO in the library). This contrasts considerably with the 1969 LP recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, (LP no. 167d in the library)
Prior to the composition of his 5th Symphony, it was a difficult time for Shostakovich. He’d had a couple of unfavourable editorials, one of which was entitled, ‘Muddle instead of Music’, and subsequently decided to pull his 4th Symphony on the morning of the premiere. There was a lot resting on the 5th Symphony, which Shostakovich composed in a short space of time, between April and July 1937. He went back to the conventional 4 movement structure for the first time since his 1st Symphony and reduced the orchestra to a more conventional size, only adding celesta and piano, rather than the huge additional forces which were needed for the 4th Symphony.
It is interesting to note how well received the 5th symphony actually was. As Roy Blokker puts it in his book, ‘The Music of Dimitri Shostakovich – The Symphonies’, (shelved at 789 SHO), “In 1937 they did not want tragedy in art, yet the Fifth is tragic…..The Soviet leaders wanted folk music and nationalistic ideas; the Fifth contains none. The second movement is a grotesque dance based upon themes from the still unperformed Fourth Symphony that had parodied the very critics who had ostracised the composer in 1936. Yet the score was such a massive tour de force that it melted away all the opposition”
“The première of the Fifth Symphony on 21 November 1937 was the scene of extraordinary public acclamation. There was open weeping in the slow movement and a half-hour ovation at the end”. Grove Music Online.
It was clear that the audience at the premiere had identified the ‘tragic struggle’ in the music and how this paralleled their own daily struggles at the time.
For students and staff who want to find out more, why not start with Quicksearch, for articles, recordings, reviews and much more. Why not have a read of ‘Testimony: the memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov’ which you can find at 789 SHO or check out the DVD of ‘Testimony : the story of Dmitri Shostakovich’ shelved at DVD / FILM : TES
Roy Blokker with Robert Dearing, The Music of Dimitri Shostakovich, The Symphonies London : Tantivy Press, (Rutherford : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979)
Dmitry Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5, op. 47 Edition Eulenburg No. 579 (minature score) London, (Ernst Eulenburg, 1967)
and . “Shostakovich, Dmitry.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, (accessed November 9, 2016) http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/52560pg3.