Russian Memories and American Dreams
Saturday, May 10, 2003 - 8:00 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
SYMPHONY No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47
Premiered: Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Russia, 1937
Early in 1937, Dmitri Shostakovich’s patron, Marshal Alexander Tukachevsky, a national hero, was taken out and shot for non-existent “treason.” If this could happen to one of the top men in the military, what chance did a mere composer stand? His latest opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, had just been denounced in Pravda; the score and parts had been burned. Was the composer next?
The Fifth Symphony is often seen sub-titled “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.” The subtitle was inserted by an apparatchik in the State music publisher’s office. The symphony is much more than that – but it also conceals a startling secret from the composer’s private life.
The first movement opens with a tight, leaping theme, played in canon – and therefore constantly tying itself down; this struggles with itself until it finally calms down to make way for the eerie, glassy second subject, played at the top of the violins’ range over a slowly chugging short-short-long pattern. Listen carefully; the second subject is actually an immensely slowed down version of the habañera from Bizet’s Carmen. And what does all this “mean”? In 1935, Shostakovich’s mistress had ditched him for a man called Roman Carmen. This, incredibly, is the program-behind-the-program of the symphony.
After combining in a near war, the two subjects are beaten into submission by the short-short-long pattern we heard earlier, and an unmistakable “happy” version of the habañera ends it all, which seems entirely the right phrase to describe the emotional state of the piece by then.
The second movement, somewhere between a militaristic waltz and a hyper-ironic Mahler scherzo, features a solo violin (undoubtedly the composer in the narrative subtext) simpering over the harp and its pizzicato string friends in the Trio, only to swallowed up in more violence. The great critic Hans Keller had a wonderful word to describe such a horribly unfunny fun (“Scherzo”) movement – this is a Scherzoid.
The slow movement takes the already bleak emotional subtext of the work to the point of nervous breakdown. Its importance to the composer can surely be shown by the fact that the movement was written and orchestrated in three days. There is fear, loneliness and more fear, expressed in a language that might be called “Tchaikovsky staring down a gun.”
The finale is, to put it gently, not what it seems. What sounds like a bombastic celebration of Communist bliss actually begins with another quote from the habañera – “Beware! Beware!” – and careful listening will also reveal echoes of Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold and the execution scene of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. Shostakovich could rely on the hacks of the Ministry of Culture to only hear the din of mass celebration of joy in the Five Year Plan. He needs to rely on us to hear something very different. We must not let him down.