• Simon Rushby

Symphony No.5 (finale) by Dmitri Shostakovich

#listeneveryday 23 Feb 2021

Shostakovich was heavily criticised by Stalin's regime in the mid-1930s. In 1936 the Soviet authorities described his opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk as "chaos, instead of music" and through an article in Pravda warned Shostakovich that any further 'stepping out of line' would not be met in a friendly manner.


Shostakovich knew he was in a desperate situation. He felt allied to his fellow Russians, concerned at the authorities' efforts to control his creativity and that of his fellow artists. But he knew that if he continued to upset them with his musical style, he would 'disappear' like so many millions of others did under Stalin's regime.


His response was this symphony, described in one newspaper as 'A Soviet artist's response to just criticism' though these were far from Shostakovich's feelings. He strived to create a piece that would satisfy the authorities, but also please the people and challenge the artistic world. The ovation that the symphony got at its first performance in Leningrad lasted for 40 minutes, and many in the audience wept during the performance.

The finale of this symphony is one of the most uplifting pieces of music written in the 20th century, with as its centre a desperately bleak but hearteningly poignant lyrical section. The performance I've chosen, played by the LSO with Michael Tilson Thomas a few years ago, will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. As conductor Vasily Petrenko said, it "expresses the glory of the human spirit. Of course, the celebration is being forced, but there's a sense that whatever you try to do with people, they will rise."


Conductor Mark Wigglesworth, on his website, adds, "The repeated notes that end the work are shocking. That they are repeated 252 times is a sign that Shostakovich knew the battle would be a long time in winning. As a composer, he was undoubtedly heroic. As a man, he would do anything to survive."


More to listen to

The heart-wrenching third movement of the same symphony, performed by the Moscow City Symphony Orchestra.







The second movement of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony - another breathtaking, frenetic piece of music.


A new #listeneveryday post is published every weekday! Comment below or tweet @SimonRushby with your suggestions for future music.

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