Help me , O Lord, to get through this night;
I am afraid for her life, your handmaiden’s–
Living in Petersburg is like sleeping in a coffin.
Ossip Mandelstam (1931)
Much of Dimitri Shostakovich’s world was a living hell. On August 9, 1975 he died in Moscow, a month before his 69th birthday. Arguably the greatest Russian composer of the 20th century, he endured the most violent extremes of praise and condemnation during his lifetime, yet he was able to maintain his integrity as a creative artist. He is a truly astounding embodiment of the often difficult-to-achieve character strength of Integrity.
The terrors of Stalinist Russia–the fear of arrest, torture,show trials, imprisonment, exile, or death–were never far from his mind. Until the end of his life, he was forced to play a game of deadly brinkmanship with the ruling Communist Party.
His life seemed rosy after the premiere of his First Symphony in 1925; he completed it at age 18 as a graduation piece, and it has remained one his most admired and popular works ever since. But his satirical opera The Nose (1930), about the sudden disappearance of the nose of a government functionary, prompted harsh critical attacks on it as a product of “bourgeois decadence.”
Four years later, his next work for the stage, Lady Macbeth of the District of Mtzensk, a story of adultery, murder, and suicide in Czarist Russia, brought outright condemnation in Pravda. Shostakovich was accused of creating “an intentionally ungainly, muddled flood of sounds.” This was accompanied by the unsubtle threat that “This is playing at abstruse things, and could end very badly.”
We know that during the period of 1936-37 Shostakovich kept a bag packed at all times, spending the nights in the corridor near the elevator so that when they came for him, his family wouldn’t be disturbed. Somehow, in spite of this unimaginable stress, he gathered his inner resources in April 1937 and completed his Fifth Symphony in three months.
This work has been a widely popular and admired work ever since its premiere. In an interview published the following year, he described it as “a Soviet artist’s practical, creative reply to just criticism.” He also declared elsewhere that “the theme of my Symphony is the stabilization of a personality. In the center of this composition…I saw a man with all his experiences.”
What is he trying to convey with those words? We see them as his way of expressing the tremendous pressures Soviet artists of all kinds were under just to survive, let alone remain true to themselves. (The poet Osip Mandelstam did not, as his wife Nadezhda movingly chronicles in her memoir Hope Against Hope.)
You will hear how the Fifth Symphony juxtaposes and synthesizes many contrasting elements, subtly suggesting the experiences he guardedly refers to. It begins with an assertiveness reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This is followed by passages where the music is hesitant, as if retracting his earlier momentum , then expressions of lament–at times quiet, at others intense–followed by savage militarism, the sounds of the circus and early comedy movie soundtracks, and suggestions of Russian chant. It concludes with a finale where, as Michael Tilson Thomas points out, “the rejoicing is forced, created under threat.” The miracle of this work is that it could be created at all, considering the horrific conditions of the time.
If this has piqued your interest, consider buying the brilliant and deeply engaging analysis of the piece by Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, on the DVD: Keeping Score, Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5. (Click on the link to go to the PBS store.)
For a transcendent performance of the complete work, watch and listen to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Here is one final suggestion for close listening. In the first movement, after the opening, you will hear a melody, initially plaintive and fragile, morph into one that is menacing and brutally militaristic. In the Bernstein performance, these shifts come at 0:56, 8:50, and 10:53. What is their effect on you?
We hope this brief post leads you to think about the whole issue of Integrity in its different manifestations. It can be expressed subtly as well as in open declarations. A nuanced character strength.