An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5
Conductor Vasily Petrenko guides us through the history and analysis of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony
Symphony No. 5 Op. 47 (1937)
Premiered: Leningrad, 1937
The famous Fifth Symphony is one of Shostakovich’s most performed. It was introduced in a newspaper as ‘A Soviet artist’s response to just criticism’, but these were not the composer’s own words. Nevertheless, it was a conscious attempt to create a simplified ‘Socialist realist’ style that could be acceptable both to the Party and to the intelligentsia.
VASILY PETRENKO: ‘There will always be that question: what if the Fourth had been premiered, and had been accepted? Would Shostakovich have left us the same symphonic legacy? Would he have gone further down the route of collage, complexity into more radical territory? Years later, he probably saw that in this symphony he had found an answer to a problem that was not just political but artistic too.
The Fourth is what I call “good coal”; but parts of the Fifth came to be diamonds. You can see it like a process of chemistry, a transformation brought about by extraordinary pressures. The problems of the Fourth Symphony are the problems of contemporary music today: there are just too many thoughts happening at the same time. They cannot all be heard.
In the Fifth he crystallised his thoughts. It’s ambivalent, yes, but stark, and you can clearly hear two different ideas going on at the same time. The response to the Fifth Symphony was remarkable, from every one in the hall, because it spoke to them, and for them, so clearly.
‘For me, the finale expresses the glory of the human spirit. Of course the celebration is being forced, but there’s a sense that whatever you try to do with people, they will rise.’
Vasily Petrenko is, like Shostakovich, a son of Leningrad/St Petersburg, and grew up singing the composer’s songs in its Capella Boys Music School. In 1997 he won first prize in the Shostakovich Choral Conducting Competition and was made chief conductor of the St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra, during which time he took on the principal conductorship of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
On his arrival in the city in 2006, at just 30, he launched a project with Naxos to record all Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. The series has drawn international acclaim and, as the final instalment is released, he looks back on his nine-year journey.
‘To work with an orchestra on one composer for so many years has meant we could build a style, an approach to his language,’ he says. ‘At first, it felt like an exhilarating challenge: there are huge demands. Now, we are of one mind.’
Petrenko, born a year after the composer’s death, grew up in the Soviet Union. A beneficiary of its uniquely rigorous teaching system, he witnessed its dissolution when he was 15, the re-writing of history books, and even the emergence of a nostalgia for that dark era.
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He’s in touch with those who remember Shostakovich, and the times through which he lived, but has experienced the Western view of this controversial figure.
‘When I conduct these symphonies in Russia, there’s still an unspoken understanding of the songs, the messages. We talk more about the composer’s personal life. When I conduct in the West, it’s important to give the historical context.
There’s still so much we don’t know; the family destroyed many letters when Shostakovich died. The State would probably have requisitioned them anyway.’
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.