Does Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony end in triumph? Answers: 1. Yes; 2. No; 3. That’s the wrong question.

(Prompted by hearing a very good performance of the symphony by the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra – from Hokaido, Japan – conducted by Tadaaki Otaka at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 23 May 2011.)

For a detailed description of the symphony, click here.

For the purposes of this note what’s important is that at the end of the fourth (and last) movement, and I’ll take the timings from this performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mravinsky. From about 9m10s (9 minutes 10 seconds) to about 10m20s the first and second violins, violas, and piano are all playing a repeated single high note (in different registers), with the brass playing a peroration based on the main theme of this last movement. Then they stop, and there are a few solo strokes on the timpani, followed by a final lower chord on the full orchestra ending the symphony. Before this there are shorter passages where again there is an insistently repeated high note in the strings, which is reminiscent of a repeated high note (on – I think – the xylophone) in the slow movement, but in that movement the tempo of the repetition is slower.

Depending on who you read, this ending is triumphant, or hollow – from the wikipedia article: In the words attributed to the composer: “The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’

Some points:

1. This is art: it can mean two – or more than two – things at the same time.

2. Those who thought it a triumphant ending weren’t necessarily stupid and/or musically illiterate.

3. There are the words attributed to the composer. There is still a debate on the extent to which these words are reliable, but in the first two movements there is unmistakable irony or sarcasm, so I’m very inclined to accept that Shostakovich said them.

4. But there is yet another possibility, which can fit with either of the “Yes” or “No” answers. (I’m not sure a single performance could manage to give all three answers.) I learned what follows directly (on two separate occasions) from a Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra player who was repeating what Rudolf Barshai had said to the orchestra when rehearsing for a performance of this symphony: the repeated notes in the strings (and piano) represent “Ya, Ya, Ya, …”, that is the Russian for “I, I, I”. In other words, I am an individual, I matter. [In my original post I wrote it represents “Yi, Yi, Yi, …”, that this the Russian for “me, me, me”. I’ve corrected the trivial typo, and today – 2017-07-18 – my memory was corrected by that BSO player.]

Now in that light, the ending could be either triumphant or not. The case for yes is simply that those notes are repeated for a very long time. Over 10% of the last movement, and that’s not including the repeated notes earlier in the movement. The case for no is that the repeated notes stop before the end, with an “apparently triumphant” ending, but the “me, me, me” has stopped.

For what it’s worth, my current view is that there is is a deliberate multi-levelled ambiguity here, and that the ambiguity is not just Shostakovich trying to say what he wanted without falling foul of the 1930’s Soviet authorities. (Which would be an entirely understandable aim in itself.)


About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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