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We have learned much about Shostakovich since his death in 1975, from reminiscences of friends, from letters and documents, from his now discredited autobiography Testimony, and from our deeper knowledge of life in the Soviet Union. The one thing that comes through clearly is that for any artist under Stalin’s regime the most prized skill was that of dissembling. For Shostakovich, who was inordinately shy and who hated appearing in public, it became second nature to keep his thoughts to himself, to play his cards with the utmost circumspection, to lie when necessary, and to choose his friends with care. A composer in such circumstances has the blessing of his own music, which can express exactly what he wants it to express without him having to explain its meaning to anyone. Who can say what his music is about? How can we know that the hints and explanations the composer did give are the truth? Like Beethoven, Shostakovich had such supreme command of his craft that he could string his audience along, letting them believe one message and then (perhaps) delivering a different one. Or perhaps the same one?

The Fifth Symphony, probably the most popular of the composer’s 15 in today’s concert halls, was written at a critical juncture in Shostakovich’s career, since for the first time (and not the last) he had to confront the peril of Stalin’s displeasure. This was aroused by his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, whose expressionistic intensity and brutal narrative offended the Great Leader. In January 1936 Pravda devoted a ferocious column to condemning the opera. In Stalin’s world such criticism was life-threatening, not merely career-threatening, which would explain why Shostakovich withheld the exploratory Fourth Symphony he was then working on and composed instead the Fifth.

Even so, he attempted to make amends not with a patriotic cantata or a sycophantic ode, but with a symphony, that most formalist of forms, always a mystery to Soviet policy-makers, since a symphony without words is not specifically supportive of the regime. The Fifth Symphony, first performed in November 1937, was received with huge enthusiasm and relief since it possessed all the qualities needed to rehabilitate the composer: a simple and direct musical language, extended well-shaped melodies, and above all a positive fanfare at the end, erasing all shadows and doubts. At the same time it has a seriousness and complexity that lifts it well above the level of bland self-abasement which might have been his response.

Shostakovich publicly described the new work as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” Privately he said (or is said to have said) that the finale is a satirical picture of the dictator, deliberately hollow but dressed up as exuberant adulation. It was well within Shostakovich’s power to present a double message in this way, and it is well beyond our means to establish whether the messages are true or false. The listener must read into this music whatever meaning he may find there; its strength and depth will allow us to revise our impressions at every hearing.

The shadows of both Beethoven and Mahler hang over the first two movements, the first movement displaying great ingenuity in the control of tempo from slow to fast and back, and the second couched in a folksy idiom, with traces of the jocular spirit of all scherzos. The third movement is notable for the fine quality of the string writing (the brass are not involved) and its intensity of expression. In contrast the finale gives the brass and percussion a chance to flex their muscles and hammer home the message of... what? Triumph in the major key, perhaps; pride in a populist regime, perhaps; the mask of jollity concealing the tears beneath, perhaps. The language of music remains forever inscrutable.

— Hugh Macdonald