Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5, 2nd Movement

Though it may not sound like it to you, I think this is one of the most affecting pieces of classical music I have ever heard.

Shostakovich had, up to this point, been enjoying quite a successful career as a young composer (well, as successful as your career ever got in the Soviet Union) with a healthy amount of official approval. Until Stalin actually attended one of his concerts and hated it, whereupon a nasty article appeared in the official press and Shostakovich literally feared for his life (people were losing their heads for much less under Stalin). As what was later termed in the official press “A Soviet artist’s response to just criticism,” Shostakovich wrote his 5th symphony, which trips over itself trying to be harmonically conservative, pleasant to listen to, and concurrent with Soviet dogma. All of which it certainly is, but when I listen to it, I can hear a certain element of desperation in it, too. There are so many sudden changes of harmony, phrases that go nowhere, pretty melodies that get crushed by big loud noises; these, to me, sound like Shostakovich’s actual response to the unjust criticism leveled against him by those who had more power over him than they ever could have in a just world.
Members of the audience are reported to have wept during the third movement (which I also highly recommend)–it seems Shostakovich was not alone in his feelings toward Soviet oppression and genocide.
This recording says it is by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in 1991, which means it was taken during the very last days of the Soviet Union. When I watch it, I wonder, what experiences did the performers have that informed their realization of the symphony for this recording? How have their lives changed since?
I confess that I almost wept the first time I heard the violin solo at 1:52. It was so fragile and beautiful, so delicate–almost as though it were a flower that knew it was about to be destroyed by a bomb, but decided to bloom anyway . . . as though it were defiant in its fragility. That’s the composer in me talking. I don’t know if Shostakovich really intended all of that. But when I hear this music, I feel it.


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