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shostakovich’s fifth symphony – the debate continues

This coming weekend – Sunday, March 2nd @ 2 p.m., to be exact – the Oregon Symphony will present the next concert in its series Inside the Score. Under examination this time around is the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his Fifth Symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich

There are two major controversies amongst Shostakovich scholars concerning this work. First, is it “an artist’s response to just criticism” at face value, or is it a coded, subversive message of defiance? Second, what should the tempo to the end of the last movement be – slow as Shostakovich marked, or altered to be twice as fast, as Leonard Bernstein famously so famously did in performances where the composer was present, and supposedly gave his assent?

Shostakovich’s political leanings are amongst the most controversial topics for historians and musicologists, and even performers. For better or worse, his music has become linked inextricably with his biography, perhaps due to the bitterly contested memoir Testimony, written by Solomon Volkov.

I personally think that the Fifth Symphony is an extraordinary and sublime masterpiece, regardless of which Shostakovich’s experiences inform it or don’t inform it. But we as humans cannot help but be influenced by the nature of the artists and their lives when we are experiencing their works.

So he who believes that Shostakovich was merely a political toady and apologist to Stalin and his regime would have a quite different view of the Fifth Symphony (as a paean to the triumphs of the Communist ideal), as opposed to she who believes that Shostakovich was a courageous, subversive artist who was combating and protesting the evil personified by Josef Stalin through his music – then the Fifth Symphony becomes a requiem and a mocking, sarcastic commentary on Stalin and his excesses of cruelty and butchery. And more importantly, did Shostakovich actually change the way he wrote music because of the infamous Pravda article penned by Stalin himself after the premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District?

An article by scholar J. Daniel Huband suggests that we view his works less through the prism of his life, and that by looking at the construction of the Fifth Symphony through the dispassionate eye of the musicologist, we might find that Shostakovich actually stuck to his guns, compositionally speaking, at least:

The attempt to relate a non-musical event to a
musical phenomenon creates problems for the
musicologist. Compelled to search beyond the
mere notes on the printed page, one may try to
gain more penetrating insights into a particular
work by scrutinizing historical circumstances
concurrent with the genesis of the music. In the
case of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony,
the social and political background to this piece
has been greatly emphasized.’ Yet could the
efforts to relate the composer’s compositional
style to his troubles with the Soviet regime
obscure musical issues? The Fifth Symphony,
frequently viewed by many music historians as
an apologetic musical response to the Pravda
attack on the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk
District, does not present as drastic a change in
musical style as is commonly believed. An
analysis of the four earlier symphonies reveals
that they function importantly in the composer’s
evolution as a symphonist; Shostakovich refines
several compositional techniques employed in
these works and incorporates them in the Fifth
Symphony, his first fully mature piece. The
most salient features of the composer’s early
works that most clearly relate to his development
as a symphonist shall be discussed in this
essay. This process aims to reassess the hypothesis
which suggests Shostakovich suddenly
mended his ways in light of official criticism

As with much of his music, (to which, if Volkov is to be believed, Shostakovich assigns an explicit program or agenda) how one views Shostakovich’s political leanings can drastically affect how one considers the piece. As a listener this is disconcerting enough, but for the performer/interpreter it presents even more dilemmas, the most famous of which is the tempo of the coda of the last movement of the Fifth Symphony.

Shostakovich’s own marking in the score calls for a slow, almost funereal tempo, which can be overpowering in its effect. Massive blocks of sound from the winds and brass convey the overwhelming power and weight of … what? Leonard Bernstein famously doubled the tempo of this section, making it a parody of the expression of triumph on behalf of the Party.

Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop takes the middle approach:

… how fast should it be played? At the very end of the symphony, Shostakovich’s original tempo marking is quite slow. But Leonard Bernstein doubled the tempo in his recording with the New York Philharmonic, and Shostakovich thought it worked very well.

For me, this is a defining moment in the symphony, determined by the entirety of the last movement, and even the journey of the entire piece. I hear the last movement as a gradual acceleration of forces, an increasing sense of hysteria and loss of control until things break down and the fanfare (like the theme) becomes almost nightmarish in sound.

For me, this is an important trasformation. It signals a moment of weakness and affects how I approach the coda — the sort of “summary statement.” Shostakovich ends by offering an opening for hopefulness, for a certain nobility in survival. Therefore, I take a tempo that is not too fast nor too slow, neither giddy nor funereal.

What do I think?

I think that the middle-of-the-road approach is fairly effective, inoffensive to most people, and therefore not worth doing.

The Bernstein approach (twice as fast) I find to be pretty offensive, and that it trivializes the effect of the finale.

The approach that most Russian conductors follow is that which the composer actually wrote in his score – namely that it is the same tempo as what precedes it. If Shostakovich wanted it twice as fast, he’d have marked it that way. For those of you keeping score, the last time we did this symphony on a subscription concert, we performed it under the direction of Yakov Kreizberg, who took the slow tempo (and we enjoyed it very much, thank you).

So I prefer the Jansons and Rostropovich approaches the best (out of the four examples below). Perhaps if I were a brass player (particularly the trumpet), maybe I’d think differently, as the slow tempo definitely takes its toll on the chops.

So, without further ado, here are four audio clips of the last section of the last movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. They fall in order of the tempo of the final section, from fastest to slowest (and, curiously enough, in chronological order!). Let the chips fall where they may.

Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic – 1959
Purchase at

Bernard Haitink/Concertgebouw Orchestra – 1990
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Mariss Jansons/Vienna Philharmonic – 1997
Purchase at

Mstislav Rostropovich/London Symphony – 2002
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There are a lot of sources of information about Shostakovich and his works on the internet. I’ll point you towards some to help you prepare for the upcoming concert, should you so desire.

NPR features a collaboration with conductor Marin Alsop, which has an excellent multimedia page which includes famous musicians discussing Shostakovich, including Alsop (on the Fifth Symphony), David Finckel, Mstislav Rostropovich, Valery Gergiev, and Leon Botstein.

I hope to see you in the audience for the Inside the Score concert this Sunday, March 2 @ 2:00 p.m.!

By Charles Noble

I'm the Assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony.

7 replies on “shostakovich’s fifth symphony – the debate continues”

What can we say? If Shostakovich gave his approval of Lenny’s tempo, there should be no argument here.
Many are aware that Rostropovich was a friend of Shostakovich, and also, Russian. Perhaps Rostropovich viewed his motherland differently and saw the coda/finale as “driving home a statement,” aimed at a dead Stalin, and Russia. Proving that in the end he, Rostropovich, and the composer had both been victorious.
However, since victory has always been seen as a celebration, then I’ll take Lenny’s version. Yesterday, today, and forever.
Larry French
Johnson City Press
Johnson City, TN

Remember that Shostakovich was in NY, a guest, and in perhaps equivocal ‘standing’, both at home and in NYC– where reportedly, there were still swirls of nasty innuendo about his integrity.
Nothing like a self-righteous ‘lefty’ ready to scold others for moral weakness, when nothing here could be imagined as fraught as Shostakovich’s hanging-by-a-thread in the land of nightly disappearances.
If Shost. was willing to give Lenny’s version a whirl, then a number of reasons might all combine,
not least that the composer, being a true artist, could entertain more than one view at a time.

The myth that Lenny “doubled” the tempo lives on, and is completely erroneous. Try tapping along with a metronome app. What you will find is that it clocks in around quarter = 220, or roughly 17% faster than the composer’s marking of quarter = 188. Meanwhile, other recordings go *twice as slow* as the indicated 188! Repeat, that is 100% slower. Why??

The modern score shows Quarter = 188. The ORIGINAL RUSSIAN score shows EIGHTH NOTE = 184! If we assume 184 and 188 are essentially equal, if the modern score is incorrect, and it should be “eighth note =…..”, that would definitely account for the “twice as slow”. On the NY Phil Archives, you can see in Bernstein’s score he crosses out quarter = 188, and replaces it in his own handwriting with HALF NOTE = 96. (this equals quarter note = 192). And that is just slightly faster than 188 or 184.

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