On Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony

Practical definitions of socialist realism are hard to come by. Soviet composers spent years agonising over a satisfactory way to define the aesthetic (and, arguably, they never did come up with a good definition). 

In short, socialist realism is the name given to a body of art, music, literature, poetry, and theatre that was created under communist rule during the twentieth-century. It was an intrusion of official power into the realm of artistic creation when governments dictated what sort of art artists should and shouldn’t create. 

Under Soviet communism, all aspects of life were harnessed to serve the purposes of the people (as decided by the government), including music. Various governmental figures decided that art had to be approachable, educational, and ideologically-correct in order to best serve the citizens of the Soviet Union. In terms of music, this meant that it had to be relatively easy to understand, tuneful, and be capable of inspiring citizens to put even greater effort into their everyday labours. 

Some of those might sound like noble aims to those who are unfamiliar with the aesthetic. In practice, however, it meant a harsh crackdown on any musical style that was deemed to be undesirable by the authorities. Such decisions were invariably driven by politics and ideology; as a result, many composers tried to be as cautious as possible in their compositions. This led to a huge body of music (certainly the vast bulk of Soviet music) that conformed to the demands of socialist realism by having simple, tuneful melodies in a style that revived musical forms and ideas that conformed to mid-nineteenth-century expectations of the Classical and Romantic traditions. Many works also utilised melodies, rhythms, and forms taken from folk music as a crude way of demonstrating how their compositions related to the population at large. 

In the twenty-first century, 99.9% of socialist-realist music goes unheard and unmentioned. In terms of the performing canon (that is, the repertory of musical works that are most frequently performed by orchestras around the world), there is only one piece of socialist-realist music that is enjoyed the world over: Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. 

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Op. 47, was composed in the spring and summer of 1937. The date is significant, in that Shostakovich had been very publicly criticised the year previously for writing ‘formalist’ music in his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Since then, his music had been essentially banned from publication and performance, and Shostakovich went from the most successful composer in his country down to dire circumstances, struggling to make ends meet. It was premiered in November 1937 (conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky), and was greeted as an instant success by critics and audiences alike. 

One critic described the piece as ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism’, and the name stuck (it’s important to note that Shostakovich did not give the piece that title himself, despite many reports to the contrary). In short, it was received as a sort of reappraisal and reorientation after the supposed ‘formalism’ of Shostakovich’s earlier works. 
In what ways does the Fifth Symphony conform to the expectation of socialist realism? There are several ways:

  • in the tunefulness of its melodic content
  • in its overall narrative arc of ‘struggle’, moving from difficulty to triumph and (related),
  • in its relationship to established norms of the Classical/Romantic canon

The work’s tunefulness is immediate from the very opening; Shostakovich also quotes several  melodies including references to Bizet’s Carmen in the first movement (in an allusion to his romantic affairs at the time of composition), and also to his own settings of Pushkin in the final movement (in particular, a phrase that references the concept of ‘rebirth’, appropriate given the context of the Symphony). 

The piece’s overall triumph of struggle can be heard throughout. The first movement is an adapted sonata form, with a complex array of thematic rotations to create something in between a type 2 and type 3 sonata form (via Hepokoski & Darcy’s terminology). The scherzo is a pompous march, with a strident contrasting theme in the major. The third movement is bleak and dark, though it again promises at salvation through the major theme. The final movement is most famous of all, with its trajectory towards the major theme and a colossal closing sequence, in which the closing tonality is utterly hammered out. The clearest reference to established norms is not only in the use of forms like sonata, but also in the trajectory of minor-major, established as a basic narrative of ‘struggle and triumph’ since Beethoven’s time (and arguably long before). 

Soviet critics almost unanimously received it as a triumph; Alexei Tolstoy understood it as representing the ‘formation of a personality’. The Fifth Symphony was held up as a model for other Soviet composers to follow when they wanted to compose in the socialist-realist aesthetic; there was a short-lived wave of imitator works in the years that followed. 
If the Fifth Symphony was understood to be so typically socialist-realist, why do we enjoy it so much in the present day (when we otherwise shun and ridicule socialist realist music)? 

There are several reasons:
1) the back-story: the circumstances behind the work’s creation are so compelling as to reinforce the emotional impact of the work (however we receive those emotions to be)

2) the opportunity for multiple interpretations: in recent years, multiple ideological standpoints have sought to ‘claim’ Shostakovich for their own. Consider the closing two minutes of the symphony: are they proud and noble in their glorious triumph, or are they bitterly sarcastic? One of the special qualities of Shostakovich’s music is that it can interpreted in many, many different ways (and more than just these two options). Following the publication of the pseudo-memoir Testimony, many listeners chose to detect a level of irony and anger directed against the Soviet regime in this passage in particular. It’s certainly possible. I would stress, though, that the music isn’t there to be solved: we can simply appreciate it from many, many levels. 

3) despite it being understood as socialist-realist, the symphony is, frankly, incredibly good music. Shostakovich did not actually have to change very much of his style in order to conform to the recently-imposed socialist-realist aesthetics. Perhaps the clearest changes in style are a shift towards Bach-like counterpoint in several passages, and passages of outright bombast (most obviously in the second movement, but also in that finale, again).

That, in short, is a brief introduction to the only piece of socialist-realist music that is regularly performed (well, there are perhaps a few others, but I won’t go into those here). The next time you hear Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in concert, or in a broadcast, please do consider how the work conforms to the aesthetic. More importantly, consider just why this work in particular is considered acceptable to modern audiences, while thousands of others are not? The case ‘for’ might be as crude as something about ‘the genius of Shostakovich’; but beyond that, its place in the repertory throws up interesting questions about our relationship to the cultural products of dictatorships, how much historical circumstances might affect our appreciation of artworks, and our own relationship to socialist realism in the present day. 

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