Conducted by Leonard Bernstein, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performs Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47. Recorded at a 1979 live performance in Bunka Kainan, Tokyo, Japan.

Conducted by Leonard Bernstein, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performs Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47. Recorded at a 1979 live performance in Bunka Kainan, Tokyo, Japan.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 47, stands as one of the most profound and enigmatic compositions in the history of classical music, epitomizing the complex interplay between artistic expression and political influence. Created in 1937, during a period of intense scrutiny and censorship under Joseph Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union, this symphony was Shostakovich’s response to the official denunciation he had received two years earlier, following the premiere of his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.”

The Fifth Symphony was premiered on November 21, 1937, by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Yevgeny Mravinsky, and it was met with an overwhelmingly positive reception from both the public and the authorities. This success was crucial for Shostakovich, as it effectively saved his career and possibly his life, at a time when many of his contemporaries were facing severe persecution.

The music of Symphony No. 5 is characterized by its profound depth, intricate orchestration, and emotional breadth, spanning from despair and melancholy to triumphant resolve. Shostakovich masterfully combines traditional symphonic form with his own distinctive voice, creating a work that is accessible yet deeply layered with meaning. The symphony’s finale, in particular, has been the subject of much debate, with interpretations ranging from a genuine expression of victory to a veiled critique of the oppressive Soviet regime, encapsulating the ambiguity that often surrounds Shostakovich’s music.

The symphony’s reception and legacy are as complex as its music. Initially hailed as a return to “the people’s music” following the composer’s previous denunciation, it has since been interpreted by some scholars and listeners as a subtle, coded dissent against Stalinist repression. This duality has cemented Symphony No. 5 as a monumental work in the orchestral repertoire, celebrated for its ability to convey profound emotional and intellectual depth under the guise of government-approved socialist realism.


With the starting times in the video:

  1. 00:21 Moderato
  2. 18:12 Allegretto
  3. 23:32 Largo
  4. 40:04 Allegro non troppo

1. Moderato

The first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, marked “Moderato,” serves as a powerful and evocative opening that sets the emotional and thematic tone for the entire symphony. This movement is characterized by its intricate structure, blending haunting melodies with moments of intense drama and complexity.

Opening with a somber string theme that immediately establishes a mood of introspection and melancholy, the movement unfolds through a series of variations and developments that showcase Shostakovich’s masterful orchestration and thematic development. The initial theme is both lyrical and brooding, setting up a narrative tension that permeates the movement.

As the movement progresses, contrasts between the delicate and the forceful become more pronounced. The music occasionally swells into powerful climaxes, featuring brass and percussion, only to recede into passages of quiet despair or contemplation. This dynamic interplay between sections of the orchestra highlights the underlying tension and emotional depth of the piece.

A significant feature of this movement is its use of a wide range of orchestral colors and textures. Shostakovich employs a variety of instrumental combinations to create contrasting moods and atmospheres, from the starkness of solo woodwind or string lines to the full force of the orchestral ensemble.

One of the most poignant aspects of the first movement is its ambiguous emotional character. While there are moments that seem to suggest a search for hope or redemption, these are often undercut by darker, more introspective passages, reflecting the complex socio-political context in which the symphony was composed. This ambiguity is a hallmark of Shostakovich’s style, inviting multiple interpretations and making the music profoundly resonant with listeners.

The movement concludes with a return to the opening material but transformed in a way that suggests a resolution is still out of reach. The ending is neither triumphant nor fully despairing but instead leaves the listener in a state of unresolved tension, setting the stage for the subsequent movements to explore further.

2. Allegretto

The second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is a striking contrast to the opening movement, presenting a lighter, more ironic character that has often been interpreted as a sardonic dance. This movement, marked Allegretto, is sometimes described as a scherzo, adhering to the tradition of symphonic writing with its playful yet dark undertones.

In this movement, Shostakovich employs a mix of whimsical melodies and abrupt, mocking rhythms that create an atmosphere of both humor and underlying tension. The orchestration features a prominent use of woodwind and string instruments, which weave together to form intricate, teasing passages. The music’s character suggests a dance-like quality, but with a twist that hints at something more sinister or mocking beneath the surface. This duality is emblematic of Shostakovich’s style, reflecting his ability to layer meanings and emotions within his music.

Listeners and critics have often speculated about the deeper meanings behind the seemingly light-hearted facade of this movement. Some interpret it as a veiled critique of the Soviet regime’s attempts to control artistic expression, while others hear in it a reflection of the personal and societal anxieties of the time. Regardless of interpretation, the second movement of Symphony No. 5 stands out for its combination of technical skill, emotional depth, and the complex interplay between surface cheerfulness and underlying darkness.

This movement showcases Shostakovich’s masterful ability to balance contrasting moods and themes within a single piece, making it a compelling and thought-provoking part of the symphony. It provides a moment of levity and introspection amidst the more dramatic and tense movements that flank it, demonstrating the composer’s nuanced understanding of the symphonic form and his unique voice within the classical music tradition.

3. Largo

The third movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, marked Largo, is a profound and deeply moving piece that serves as the emotional core of the symphony. This movement is characterized by its slow tempo, expansive melodies, and a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere that conveys a sense of mourning and introspection.

Shostakovich’s use of sparse textures and a focus on individual instrumental lines in this movement creates an intimate and solemn mood. The orchestration is notable for its emphasis on strings, with particularly expressive parts for the violin and cello, which carry the main thematic material. The woodwinds, especially the flute and clarinet, also play significant roles, adding layers of color and emotional depth to the music.

The Largo is structured in a broad, arch-like form, building gradually to a climax of intense emotional power before subsiding into a quiet, reflective conclusion. The music’s slow, deliberate pace and the space between notes add to the feeling of solemnity and contemplation. Throughout the movement, there is a sense of longing and unresolved tension, as if the music is reaching out for something just beyond grasp.

Critics and listeners have often interpreted this movement as a lament, possibly reflecting the composer’s personal grief or a more general sense of loss and longing in the face of the oppressive political climate of the Soviet Union at the time. The emotional depth and stark beauty of the Largo make it one of the most memorable and affecting parts of the symphony.

Despite its somber mood, the third movement is not without a sense of hope. The careful resolution of dissonances and the eventual return to a more peaceful state suggest a resilience of spirit, an acceptance of sorrow but also a quiet determination to endure. This movement, with its blend of melancholy and subtle optimism, showcases Shostakovich’s genius in capturing complex emotional landscapes through music, making it a pivotal moment in Symphony No. 5.

4. Allegro non troppo

The fourth movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, marked Allegro non troppo, is a powerful and complex finale that encapsulates the emotional journey of the entire symphony. This movement is characterized by its dynamic contrasts, dramatic intensity, and the sense of resolve that it brings to the symphony as a whole.

Starting with a forceful and assertive theme, the music quickly establishes a sense of urgency and determination. The opening material is grandiose, featuring full orchestral forces with prominent brass and percussion, creating a bold and commanding atmosphere. This is contrasted with sections that recall the more introspective and melancholic themes from earlier movements, providing a sense of cohesion and continuity to the symphony.

Shostakovich masterfully navigates through a variety of moods and textures in this movement, from the aggressive and triumphant to the lyrical and tender. The development section explores these contrasts further, with the composer employing his skillful orchestration to highlight different instrumental colors and thematic material. The tension builds through a series of climactic moments, each more intense than the last, leading to an exhilarating finale.

The conclusion of the fourth movement has been the subject of much debate among listeners and scholars. The triumphant nature of the music, with its loud, repeated notes in the strings and brass, suggests a victory. However, the underlying complexity and the aggressive manner in which this victory is presented have led some to interpret it as ironic or even forced, reflecting the composer’s ambivalent relationship with the Soviet authorities and the pressures he faced to conform to their artistic ideals.

Despite these differing interpretations, the fourth movement of Symphony No. 5 is undeniably impactful, bringing the symphony to a close with a sense of cathartic release. It showcases Shostakovich’s ability to convey a wide range of emotions and ideas through his music, from defiance and struggle to triumph and resolve, making it a fitting conclusion to one of the 20th century’s most enduring symphonic works.


M. Özgür Nevres

Published by M. Özgür Nevres

I am Özgür Nevres, a software engineer, a former road racing cyclist, and also an amateur musician. I opened to share my favorite music. I also take care of stray cats & dogs. This website's all income goes directly to our furry friends. Please consider supporting me on Patreon, so I can help more animals!

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