COMPOSED BY

Dmitri Shostakovich (September 1906 – August 1975) in 1937

DURATION

Approximately 50 minutes (total 4 movements)

Instrumentation

2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 B-flat trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 harps, piano, celesta, and strings.

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SUMMARY OF THE COMPOSITION

The completion of the Fifth Symphony and the ecstatic embrace by the public marked the most significant turning point in Shostakovich’s artistic life. Its premiere on 21 November 1937 received an overwhelming public response – from open weeping in the slow movement to a half-hour ovation at the end – suggesting the public’s relief and joy at the composer’s rehabilitation as the Soviet Union’s preeminent composer. 

1

Moderato – Allegro non troppo

The symphony, which the composer described as “a lengthy spiritual battle, crowned by victory”, opens with a menacing theme in the strings. The dotted rhythm hints at the bitter, stoic march toward the enemy. A lyrical melody filled with anguish is later introduced by the violin. The repeated attacks on the high A by the violin

2

Allegretto

The second movement is brief and playful; a self-parody underscored with grotesque humour brought out by loud, pompous brasses, frisky winds, and teasing solo violin in the Trio section.

3

Largo

The third movement is haunting, moving and poignant altogether. It begins with strings, followed by a solo flute, and finally by the full orchestra without the brass section. The solo oboe’s wistful melody underscored by the quiet and eerie shimmering strings is later recalled by the harps before the movement ends in a quiet morendo.

4

Allegro non troppo

The finale unleashes an explosive and blazing sound-world, announced by hammering timpani and fiery brass fanfare. In a quiet interlude that precedes the coda, Shostakovich quoted the characteristic accompaniment and the opening motif of the vocal line of ‘Rebirth’ from his 1936’s cycle of Pushkin Romances in the finale. Many point to this reference as a veiled statement of creative survival and rebirth, a concept complemented by the evolution from D minor to D major in the finale, albeit the remaining unresolved tensions as noted by some critics.

WHO IS ... DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH?

Suprising fun facts

  • Shostakovich’s earlier infatuation with a woman who refused his offer of marriage and subsequently married a man named Roman Carmen was referenced in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony by using a motif from “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen. 
  • His graduation piece, Symphony No. 1, is performed worldwide today.
  • He worked as a pianist for silent movies and would improvise during the movie, inventing a specific tune for each character with the musical fragments he had kept and developed.

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