Tuesday 5 September 2017


He's heard this one before.
A Proms performance of Shostakovich's ubiquitous Fifth Symphony at the weekend brought out all its accumulated myths and canards, gleefully repeated by critics, programme note writers and radio presenters. They're trotted out so often, so relentlessly, that they may as well be true now, but from my little corner of the internet, I may as well offer a little corrective, because in all honesty, who else will?

If the story of the Fifth is not known to you, here's a brief recap. In January 1936, Shostakovich was riding high from the success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, an adaptation of Leskov's 1865 grim novella of the same name. Such was its acclaim that productions had already been staged in Leningrad and Moscow, but after a two-year run, the piece was to suffer a spectacular fall from grace when Joseph Stalin decided to attend a performance. Stalin's party left before the end, and a few days later an infamous review appeared in the official Soviet newspaper Pravda, entitled "Muddle instead of music". It railed against the cacophonous decadence of the piece and, in a vein which was to become very familiar to Soviet composers, complained "the power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning." It concluded, ominously, "It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

It was clear that the review followed as a direct consequence of Stalin's visit, but the extent to which he himself dictated its contents has been a matter of some speculation. It's juicier, of course, to state that Stalin himself penned the piece, though I've never come across any evidence to support this one. There's then usually a compression of what happened next: Shostakovich, who was working on his Fourth Symphony in the early months of 1936, is often said to have abandoned the piece forthwith, taking the end of the review (that it "may end very badly") as a clear hint that trouble of the terminal kind may follow if his present musical path wasn't left behind. But that's not quite true.

In fact, he remained bullish, despite the shock of the Pravda review. His close friend Isaak Glikman later recalled the composer saying "Even if they chop my hands off, I will continue to compose music - albeit I will have to hold the pen in my teeth." And, despite what you'll read elsewhere, he carried on working on his wild and complex Fourth Symphony for months; he played it for Otto Klemperer in May, four months after the review appeared, apparently with every intention of having it performed at home and abroad. And it went on like this. In the Autumn of 1936, full orchestral rehearsals were held, and it was only at this point, after a number of such sessions had happened, that the composer seems to have been convinced to cancel the Symphony's first performance. Even then, accounts differ as to quite why: some claim that the orchestra and conductor were under-prepared for the difficulties presented by the piece, though the more often accepted story has Shostakovich having a visit from some Party officials and being talked into dropping the whole thing.

Why does this matter? Well, compressing the narrative gives a very different impression of Shostakovich's propensity to take fright and his willingness to compromise artistic principles. The Shostakovich of the compressed narrative emerges far more inclined towards saving his own skin, though given the show trials and widespread executions of the period, such an impulse would be eminently understandable. The Shostakovich of reality remained committed to his artistic path for some months in the face of some very open official intimidation.

He did cave in the end, though, and modified his music enough for his next symphony, the Fifth, to be widely regarded as a "corrective". This one unfolded in a much more traditional manner - sonata form first movement, scherzo, slow movement and an apparently triumphant finale - though its more conventional form did provide the model for similarly proportioned symphonies (the Tenth, and to a lesser extent the Eighth) in which he was able to say some quite complex things. It also provided the rhetorical cipher for a new sort of musical irony, one in which the music could be viewed as saying the exact opposite of what it superficially appeared to be saying. The ending, famously, could be a glorious celebration, or it could be an utterly hollow fanfare, with tears of defeat streaming down the face as the mouth grins on.

But before we get too deep into irony, it's worth stopping to discredit the most common canard of them all: the Symphony's famous subtitle, "a Soviet artist's response to just criticism". This phrase, replete with either contrition or irony, depending on your point of view, is often placed into the mouth of Shostakovich, but it doesn't seem to have actually emerged from there. Rather, it was coined by a journalist, writing about the Symphony (I don't know who, but I recall hearing someone give the identity of the author). In Laurel Fay's biography of Shostakovich, the composer is reported as having written "one [critical interpretation] gave me special pleasure, where it was said that the Fifth Symphony is the practical creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism", a quotation credited to an article with the composer's name attached in a Moscow newspaper. 

So the composer seems to have acknowledged the statement (assuming that the article was written by him, which they weren't always), but he didn't come up with it and, importantly, it doesn't appear on the score as any kind of a subtitle. It may well have been popularly associated with the Symphony, at the time and after, but there's a difference between that and it being the kind of official subtitle as it is often purported to have been. Why does this matter? Well, firstly because it's not true and is frequently stated as being true, and secondly because putting it into Shostakovich's mouth suggests an attempt by the composer to shape the literal interpretation of the work in a way that he seems to have been, at all points in his career, very reluctant to do. For a long time, the statement was taken literally; latterly and in the light of the "revelations" of the now-discredited memoirs Testimony, as a statement of brazen irony equal to that signaled in the Symphony's closing minutes. If Shostakovich didn't make the statement (which he didn't) then a move in the ironic shadow-dance is subtracted and we're left to look for our answers in the music.

One more thing. If we're going to preface our quotations from Volkov's Testimony with words like "disputed" or "widely disbelieved" or "thoroughly discredited", then don't we have to stop quoting lines like "your business is rejoicing!" and, in the case of the Tenth Symphony, "a portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking"?

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