Shostakovich 5 at the Proms
From the very first bars you knew that you were in the presence of an extraordinarily great piece of music. When it was first performed in Leningrad at the height of the Stalinist purges of 1936 and 1937 people openly wept during the inconsolable lament of the slow movement. At the end the applause lasted for half an hour. The terror that had begun with the purging of party officials and then party members had now spread to the most ordinary citizens, and there was hardly a family in Leningrad that had not had someone sent to Siberia or shot. Like the Fifth Symphony of Prokoviev this one is about the industrialization of Russia. Here too we hear the roar of machines and the hammering of pistons and the shrieks and groans of metal grinding on metal. But this is a symphony that also counts the human cost of the awesome and terrible and momentous transformation of Russia.
Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony had been heavily criticized by the censors and he had been forced to withdraw it. Then his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had provoked a viciously hostile review in Pravda under the heading ‘Muddle Instead of Music’, threatening, beneath only the thinnest of veils, that things could ‘end badly’ for Soviet musicians. Already two of Shostakovich’s closest musical collaborators had been shot. He had taken to sleeping in the hallway of his house so that if the secret police came to take him away his family would not witness it. His next piece, the censors demanded, must be based on traditional Russian folk songs and must celebrate the happiness of the Russian people under Soviet rule. Instead they got this great, great work written from the very heart of the terror and fear and despair that was all around him.
He hid behind the anonymity of music. The coda was written in a major key, he said, parroting the vacuous slogans of party propaganda, in order to affirm ‘the triumph of the human spirit’. But no-one who heard it could have doubted the import of the barbarous magnificence that transcends any party diktat. As Shostakovich came back again and again, ever more white faced, to acknowledge the applause he must have thought that every agonizing minute was another bullet from the firing squad. The censors themselves must have realised that they had been outwitted. Yet he survived. Perhaps it was because Stalin liked his film music. Perhaps it was an example of the accidental misfilings that always attend bureaucracies of horror. But most likely it was the very intensity of the emotions that his work provoked which saved him. For tyrants impose fear because they themselves are frightened. Perhaps they realised that to silence this great voice might be the catalyst provoking a second revolution that would sweep away the first. Perhaps they too detected and quaked at the note of outraged justice in the grimly marching feet heard so often in this symphony.
Has there ever been so brave a work written in such circumstances? Who could not thrill to the courage and defiance that invest every note? Who would not be appalled by the pity and terror this symphony so anguishedly expresses and yet not be uplifted by its splendour? A gauntlet thrown down to tyrants everywhere. A triumph of the human spirit indeed.