Shostakovich’s fifth symphony gives a commentary on communism, lending emotional weight to history.
On Saturday, Jan. 25, the Tulsa Signature Symphony performed Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in D Minor, Op. 47. There was a mild crowd consisting of students and older music lovers. Though it was a smaller crowd, the audience knew what they were expecting: a piece with raw emotion unfolding repeatedly, creating a story of sorrow, anger, frustration, fear and hope to rise above tragedy. The orchestra tuned and solidified music passages for the final time, nervous and excited for the hefty piece that was ahead of them.
After what seemed like a few minutes of silence, the conductor, Andrés Franco, immediately enter the front of the stage, firmly in front of the orchestra and started on an intense excerpt of the symphony. He stopped the musicians abruptly to turn to look at the audience, indicating that it was just a teaser of what was yet to come. Maestro Franco then greeted the audience, thanking everyone for coming out to hear the Tulsa Signature Symphony. He proceeded to explain the history behind the piece.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) was a prolific Russian composer and pianist who defined the 20th century with his ability to make his tragedies into beautiful music, ranging from strong and intense to delicate and sweet in a matter of movements. He did not have the most pleasant life, dealing with the death of his father as a teenager and later on suffering in the Soviet Union under the reign of Joseph Stalin, never able to defect like the other Russian composers at the time, such as Igor Stravinsky.
Despite his painful experiences, he was able to find happiness and success with his music. When Shostakovich’s father died, he had to take a job as an improvisational pianist at the local movie theatre to support his family. Over the course of his lifetime, Shostakovich became a well-known composer throughout Russia, eventually winning favor with Stalin. Nevertheless, this came crashing down on him as Stalin heard one of Shostakovich’s operas and walked out midway through, implying Shostakovich’s life was on the line and that he could be killed at any moment.
Dmitri Shostakovich was able to turn this fear into one of the most profound pieces of the 20th century, signifying his true thoughts on Stalin’s regime and giving secret hope to the people struggling to maintain hope in such a dark time. Through his music he produced triumph, as it was the symphony that could showcase the various emotions that could not be conveyed without punishment. His painful life became beauty for the world through his compositions.
Franco then explained how Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is interesting in how it showcases many different techniques without being overwhelming. He mentioned there are several repeated themes, rhythms and notes that establish a certain mood throughout the piece. For instance, the piece consisted of the note A being played 250 times and the use of a march-like rhythm or even a stressed rhythm (long short short) to indicate a type of musical painting (this is also known as the Shostakovich rhythm).
Each of the movements has a distinct mood, but the piece as a whole highlights the depression and the anxiety of living with the idea that death was a reality that could come without warning. The first movement, “Moderato,” represents struggle and sadness, as well as a gesture of rebellion against the government. This illustrates the fear and destitution that people lived with.
The second movement, “Allegretto,” represents the light heartedness and the reluctance to support the regime, implying that Shostakovich was extremely sarcastic and angry at the idea of writing music for the Soviet Union.
The third movement, “Largo,” is positioned at the center of the symphony. This movement is supposed to be an underlying ode to the lost souls and to give comfort to their loved ones. It’s slow, to demonstrate the grievance of the family members; as Franco put it, the third movement sounds like an Orthodox Church choir without words. It’s a requiem without words.
The last movement is the most forceful: the “Allegro non troppo” movement represents the persecution of communism and the realization of its darkness. Nevertheless, there was hope amidst the suffering.
At the end of symphony the audience members were deeply moved, as was the conductor and the orchestra. The Tulsa Signature Symphony received a standing ovation for the extraordinary work they put in to bring the piece to life. Just like one of the pictures showed a conductor doing with Shostakovich, Maestro Franco held up a copy of the score, indicating that the real hero was the music and that it was a gesture of persevering to see the light and fighting for happiness. Shostakovich would have been proud.