As controversial as it is powerful, Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was written in the wake of the searing criticism of his opera, "Lady MacBeth of Mtensk."  This criticism had reduced Shostakovich from the golden boy of Soviet music to a near-un-person, in danger of disappearing to the gulags.  In response, Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony, an avant-garde work which would have certainly sealed his fate at the time it was written, and presented the Soviet public with "a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism," his Fifth Symphony.  The response, both official and public, was virtually unmodified in its approval and praise.

Yet considerable argument has ensued regarding the 5th, its structure and intent.  Was it Shostakovich's response to "justified criticism," or did he slip a deeper meaning in?  Michael Tilson Thomas tackled this subject brilliantly with his PBS series: "Keeping Score."  In this show, Thomas looks at the time which framed Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, digs into the work to reveal its structure, and talks with musicians who performed the work, some of them for the composer himself.  The result may not be to completely clear away the controversy, but certainly to give the listener a better appreciation of its content.  I am pleased to enthusiastically recommend:

Tags: Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, Michael Tilson Thomas, Shostakovich, Soviet

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Replies to This Discussion

Haha Loren I was just about to post this! Man, you are fast! Do you read minds? The Symphony No. 5 in D minor is a marvelous piece of work. I will post the video playlists just the same. It is just unfortunate that there is no video available from the original Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
I've forgotten when I stumbled onto the "Keeping Score" program, but I think over the last few months I've watched it at least three times, and will likely invest in the DVD at some point. The story Michael Tilson Thomas tells, not just about Shostakovich, but the society and environment of fear he lived and composed in is both frightening and fascinating. That Shostakovich not only survived it but produced the 5th symphony and TEN MORE after it is a testament both to his skills as a composer and his understanding of that environment.

Eventually, I'll watch the rest of the "Keeping Score" series, but I can't imagine any of the other episodes having the raw power of this one.
Wow, Loren, thanks for turning me onto Keeping Score. What a story. I wouldn't have lasted five minutes under Stalin. I would have been trudged off the the Gulag yelling and screaming about how stupid it was to sell Alaska to the Americans. Forget about the revolution.
I heard the Fifth in Dallas; can't remember if it was Litton or a guest conductor.

The answer could be "mu" or "both" on this issue. Shostakovich on the surface "groveling" with more "realistic" music while at the same time having some inner messages of some sort.

That said, I don't think he would have been too bold with any such messages. The No. 4 wasn't even performed until after Stalin died, and, not until No. 10 did he have a publicly audible message.
True enough ... but to listen to the performers who actually played the work talk about it, especially those who played it for Dmitri himself, I have to acknowledge that I don't hear it with their background, their history, or the baggage they were forced to carry by Stalin and his apparatchiks. And to listen to Tilson-Thomas and how he describes that time and what Shostakovich wrote in response ... it just might be that he was able to slip one under the radar, where someone who was more about the music than the politics would hear.

That's why I really enjoy this particular episode of Keeping Score: because it truly gives me a new and powerful way to look at a work I already love.

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