One of Dmitri Shostakovich’s most famous works is his Fifth Symphony in D minor, Op. 47. Musicians praise this symphony for its extravagance and elegance, its power and might. At its premier in 1937, it received a standing ovation that lasted over half an hour. To the ears of the Soviet people, it was a roaring success that placed Shostakovich on a musical pedestal. When his Fifth Symphony hit the stage, the young composer gained worldwide respect. Today music students listen to recordings of this very symphony as a milestone of twentieth century Soviet music.

Despite its initial success, the Fifth Symphony is one of Shostakovich’s least impressive works. Compared to his Fourth Symphony, which he completed one year earlier in 1936, the Fifth Symphony signifies a giant leap backwards for the composer. His Fourth Symphony displays a progressive and innovative musical style and image that rings true to the twentieth century. The Fourth Symphony ignited an intense flame of musical quality that symphonic composers at the time could not compare to. Its harmonies depict the turmoil of the Soviet state while its melodies represent the composer’s personal anguishes. One year later, his Fifth Symphony premiered with the flame diminished; the musical brilliance was gone, emotions were thrown aside and innovation remained in its box. A number of specific events and major political crises led to this tragic musical downfall: political leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Andrei Zhdanov, ‘socialist realism,’ Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and the ‘cultural revolution.’

After examining the truly bombastic Fourth Symphony, and then listening to the Fifth Symphony, I found myself in a state of disappointment and shock. How could such climactic dissonances, found so frequently in the Fourth, return back to boring and safe tonality in the Fifth? In the Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich splattered the pages with chords clusters, thick textures of dense repetition, and rhythmic intensity that leaves the listener with a sense of haunted doom cast over their heads. Shostakovich stretches the dynamics as far as they can possibly go: just after the introduction of movement there are fortissimos all up and down the score. At rehearsal square 90, he marks fffff for four trumpets, eight horns, three trombones, and two tubas, all of which create effectively loud tones with just one forte, much less four of them. His instrumentation also stretched the normal orchestration practices to the extreme limits. For the woodwind family he includes the largest number of instrument pairings that was typical for that time period, including the addition of an E-flat clarinet, an English horn, and a contrabassoon. The percussion list includes some less than typical instruments that are heard clearly throughout: a castanet, tam-tam, triangle solo in the first movement, xylophone, six timpani, and two harps. Many of the instruments are in octaves for extended periods of time, leading to a very thick and meaty texture. For instance, the first melody of the first movement requires that the four trumpets all play in unison while the rest of the orchestra is in rhythmic unison. A common theme features large groupings of instruments playing repeated eighth notes for four consecutive measures with each eighth note accompanied by an accent, adding to an overall dauntingly bombastic effect similar to that of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring.

The harmonies reach extremes that other composers at the time would seldom dare to compose. One of the most intense climaxes of the first movement occurs at rehearsal square 30: the chord includes nearly all twelve notes found in the chromatic scale. Immediately following the release of this widespread cluster chord, preceded by five full measures of ffff, all instruments comes an abrupt halt -- an entire measure of silence. Shostakovich employs drama into the Fourth Symphony like a bleeding heart. The eerie tone of the music and solo bassoon passages are both very reminiscent of The Rite of Spring, which caused a riot in the music world in 1913. Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony contains constant groups of measures of high woodwind trills that catch the listener in a whirlwind of extremely dissonant shrieks. Shostakovich paints this symphony with colors not often heard, and he stretches the limits of tonality with almost constant dissonance. The Fourth Symphony is truly an innovative leap forward into musical milestones, while his Fifth Symphony returns to the safe compositional style of the Classical Period, taking a giant leap backwards.

The Fifth Symphony contains four movements. The Fourth Symphony, even though it is 62 minutes in length, contains only three movements. Although the symphony holds its roots in a three movement form dating from the Preclassical period when the symphony first emerged into the music world, the four movement structure was soon adopted to be the norm for the Classical period; therefore, the Fifth Symphony reflects the Classical period in macro-structure.

In regards to harmony, the Fifth Symphony is overall quite clearly tonal through and through. It does not stray far from diatonic harmonies, and it avoids severe dissonances such as those that can be found in the Fourth. Delicate touch and sweeping gestures control the tone of the Fifth Symphony; the string section plays a legato archo for the most part throughout the symphony, leading to this delicate tone. Flute solos sprinkle the score, adding to the delicacy. At times the high woodwinds play some of the highest notes possible for their instruments, giving off a shriek, which can be heard often in the Fourth, but these shrieks are less violent and last for shorter lengths of time. They are more subdued, almost blending into the texture of the rest of the symphony; they are still noticeable in the Fifth, but are far less pronounced than in the Fourth Symphony.

The first movement of the Fifth Symphony contains a very recognizable melody that is carried throughout the whole movement, switching off between trumpets, woodwinds, and brass. It is a constant melody, which also reflects the Classical period; symphonies from the Classical period were mostly homophonic in texture, meaning they contain one main melody throughout. This melody rings a tone of triumph, with ascending major patterns upward, reaching a clear climax to the phrase and then returning peacefully to the tonic. Under this triumphant melody is a repeated rhythmic figure that contributes yet another cheerful tone to the picture. Although the Fifth Symphony is in the key of D minor, I listen to this music with cheerfulness and a sense of accomplishment, which is typically found in major pieces, and not those in minor keys. Near the close of the first movement, Shostakovich retracts the triumph and replaces it with a feeling of defeat brought on by a repeated rhythmic figure in the bass drum (eighth – eighth – quarter). This rhythmic motive sounds like a funeral march with its constant repetition, a sudden return to D minor, and a morendo dynamic (dying away). In texture, rhythmic energy, melody, and harmony, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony reflects aspects of the Classical period; the Fourth Symphony, on the other hand, which premiered only a year before, looked into the future of music. Eric Roseberry states that the Fourth Symphony did lead to the development of the Fifth, “but it does not lessen the enormity of the extraordinary leap from the wild inner turmoil and subjectivity of expression we encounter in the Fourth to the refinement and concentration of form and content in the Fifth.”1

So why did Shostakovich leap backward almost 150 years in musical history? In 1936, before the premier of both the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, an anonymous author, possibly Joseph Stalin but most likely Andrei Zhdanov, published a critique in the Pravda cultural journal of Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, with the title, “Chaos Instead of Music.” The article obliterated his opera, claiming it to be overtly sexual, disastrous music, and above all, anti-Soviet. According to this critique his opera did not appeal to the common Soviet people but rather an elite bourgeois. Due to these offenses, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was banned from ever being performed again in the Soviet Union, despite its being adored by the Soviet people. When this devastating article emerged, Shostakovich was in the process of composing his Fourth Symphony. He tried to rise above this political interference, which was hindering his creativity. He completed composition of his Fourth Symphony but unfortunately destroyed the score by his own hand because of the harsh, lie-ridden critique of his opera.2

Five years prior to the premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Joseph Stalin, and his equally oppressive cultural expert, Andrei Zhdanov, called an emergency meeting of the Soviet Writers Union. Stalin explained to the writers his new concept for the Soviet culture: ‘socialist realism.’3 According to this new ‘cultural revolution,’ any form of work that artists, writers, and musicians created had to reflect the ‘heroes’ of the Soviet Union. Literature had to appeal to the common Soviet man, not some elite class of upper society. This ‘common man appeal’ reflected the Communist policies of the Soviet Union: the government was taking away the class struggle that Karl Marx and Lenin had implemented twenty years prior. Rich people’s money was taken from them, while the peasants lived in the new agrarian lifestyle of ‘collectivization,’ meaning hundreds of farming families living on and sharing the same communal farmland.4

The entire country was in a huge propaganda scheme to make the Soviet Union and their Socialist government look good to the rest of the world. If anything in the culture appeared to even have a hint of anti-Soviet material, it was destroyed; the person who produced it would either be executed or exiled. After these regulations for ‘socialist realism’ came into play, 1,500 writers disappeared and stopped writing altogether.5 Soviet films stopped thinking ahead to the future of cinema society but began to create films that would appeal to the public as a fun time for the family. In other words, cinematographers were forced to create mindless films that could not contain any negative remarks or allusions against socialism. Like Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Soviet writers were pushed to look backward to the classics of literature, like Pushkin. Everything about their culture was backwards. They were not progressing as a society, but rather degrading themselves by mindlessly repeating what history had already created. Not only was our troubled composer Dmitri Shostakovich not allowed to create anything new, neither was the rest of the Soviet society. By the laws of ‘socialist realism’, enforced by Andrei Zhdanov, Soviet culture could only promote subjects which the Soviet government approved of: economic activity, a social utopia, national defense or nationalism, and the Soviet leader himself – Joseph Stalin.6

Due to ‘socialist realism,’ Shostakovich, or any of the other musicians, writers, artists, and filmmakers, were strictly forbidden to express any real emotions in any of their works. If cultural material strayed away from Soviet thinking and heroism, the creators could be brutally executed. Regarding his expressive oppression, Shostakovich remarks

It was never exactly the same voice that it had been before. You ask me if I would have been different without [Soviet] Party guidance . . . Yes, almost certainly. No doubt the line that I was pursuing when I wrote the Fourth Symphony would have been stronger and sharper in my work. I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm, I could have revealed my ideas more openly instead of resorting to camouflage. I would have written more pure music.7

I found it surprising that Shostakovich portrayed his Fourth Symphony as being an example of expressive oppression; but especially in terms of his Fifth Symphony, the progression came to a screeching halt and walked out the door due to the socialist regime and their ‘cultural revolution’. If one listens closely enough and with an open ear, one can hear hints of snarky satire in his Fifth Symphony. The main melody, which is repeated throughout the first movement, literally repeats itself in exactly the same note and rhythm scheme each time, with the only change found in the exchange of instruments. It seems as though the composer is overdoing the homophonic aspect of texture; at times the texture is so simple and thin that the music is simply repeating itself. One can also imply that this method of repetition is reflective of the Soviet culture repeating everything that the ‘classics’ already created. For instance, Soviet authors at the time were instructed to return to the style of Pushkin’s writings, which stretched back 100 years, instead of using their own thoughts. Shostakovich was to return to the Classical music period, replicating its styles, form, and texture, instead of using his individual forward thinking.

Another satirical aspect of the Fifth Symphonic was the triumphant tone set up by the main melody. From the sweeping gesture upwards accompanied by a crescendo to a steady return to the tonic in the downward motion, the listener feels a sense of triumph and accomplishment. The theme is often played by the trumpet; the bombastic nature of the trumpet’s tone creates the sense of a wartime hero, for military success is often associated with a trumpet fanfare. After this main melody has exhausted itself throughout the entirety of the first movement, Shostakovich inserts a dynamic marking indicating, “to die down” (morendo), with the slow, quiet beating of the bass drum. As I mentioned earlier, this constant rhythmic bass drum motive speaks out like a funeral march. I believe Shostakovich saw this movement as a defeat in battle, his soldiers dead, referenced by the expressive marking morendo. Here, Shostakovich is alluding in a roundabout way to the Soviet regime as dying away and falling to a slow defeat, but in the meantime, indicated by the repetitive main melody of the first movement, the regime is exhausting the same principles over and over again, beating them into the minds of the Soviet people. Shostakovich’s sly allusion to the Soviet regime’s defeat is just subtle enough that the political leaders greatly admired it, with music historians claiming that Soviet leaders greatly approved of the Fifth Symphony:

With its ample and yet conventional four-movement form, even down to an improbably minuettish scherzo, its unextravagant scoring, and its notable harmonic restraint, the Fifth Symphony amounted to a paradigm of Stalinist neoclassicism, testifying, so far as the powers were concerned, to the composer’s obedient submission to discipline.8

This view of ‘unextravagant scoring’ and ‘harmonic restraint’ leads me to my next point. I think the Fifth Symphony is simple in musical context and compositional style in comparison to his Fourth Symphony. The Fourth is complex in performance techniques, such as constant trills over four measures at a time; it is also complex in the actual notes and harmonic texture, containing non-diatonic scales and chords not pertaining to the key signature at all. In contrast, the Fifth Symphony contains a thin texture with the main melody repeating itself throughout the first movement. The second movement contains small instrument solos, and the whole symphony remains close to the hem of diatonic harmonic writing. Honestly, this symphony resembles a movie score set to a predictably boring ending where the hero defeats the villain in an epic battle scene where every audience member knows how the story will unfold. As I have stated, this symphony is simple, and it does not live up to Shostakovich’s full musical potential, based on sequential progression of the style found in his Fourth Symphony.

Unfortunately, this symphony had to be simple and dull to appease the Soviet leaders. If Shostakovich had continued composing in the style of his Fourth Symphony, he may have been put on trial, and possibly have been exiled, like fellow Soviet composer Igor Stravinsky, who was exiled from the USSR in 1917. Shostakovich may even have been executed. During Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union, civil execution ran rampant, with 2,000 to 3,000 executions occurring per year.9 According to historical records of Russian history, one of the most lethal periods was between 1927-1936, a time when Stalin was leader. In 1936 alone, 73,000 executions were ordered and 177,000 were forced to leave the Soviet Union in exile; these people were being punished for the ‘common crime’ – committing actions or speech that was anti-Soviet.10 Assassination of political leaders and execution of the common man were exceptionally common under Stalin’s leadership.

Public humiliation and verbal criticism of Shostakovich and other cultural innovators occurred often by the harsh tongue of Andrei Zhdanov. Through his public speeches, he claimed that “Our formalists [composers]. . . compose music which is ugly and false.”11 Zhdanov wanted the composers to capture the spirit of the Soviet people. I do believe that Shostakovich fully captured the anguished and crushed spirit of the Soviet people under so much oppression. Shostakovich’s harsh and bitter dissonances of the Fourth Symphony symbolize the people caught under heavy oppression by the Soviet Party, and the high woodwind shrieks and trills symbolize the cries of the Soviet people being executed. Shostakovich was the voice of a people that had no voice. Soon after, his voice was silenced as well.

Zhdanov and Stalin wanted Shostakovich’s music to portray the sound of the Russian people and to reflect the ‘positive aspects’ of their Socialist government. Their goal was for Shostakovich’s compositions, specifically his Fifth Symphony, to depict the heroes of the Soviet regime, and one can only assume that Joseph Stalin perceived himself as the lead hero in the symphony. Ironically, Shostakovich’s music was simple and thinly textured, and I believe that the Fifth Symphony sheds a poor and dim light on the Soviet Party. Unlike the Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is only surface-deep; it has no expressive depth or emotion or any real musical accomplishment. In the musical world, the Fifth Symphony is a shame to progressive music because it turns back almost completely to the Classical period with no marks to musical innovation. But the Soviet Party, especially Zhdanov, viewed this symphony as a work of remarkable accomplishment for the entire world to see. Maybe at the time of the premiere, the rest of the musical world did enjoy listening to the triumphant trumpet melody of the Fifth Symphony, or they felt a sense of relief and accomplishment for mankind, but after examining Shostakovich’s other works, specifically his Fourth Symphony, his Fifth is only notes on a page, with no meaning attached to the music at all.

The civil executions and Zhdanov’s harsh words from his public speeches were friendly reminders of why Shostakovich was forced to completely change his musical style of composition. This caused the composer to abandon his individual compositional style of his Fifth Symphony. This is why his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was banned from ever again being performed on a Soviet stage. This is why the Soviet people had to suppress their emotions, their expressiveness, their individual beliefs, and their creativity. Without Zhdanov or Stalin or the Soviet regime, Shostakovich could have created musical history with his unimaginable depth of emotion put into music. The composer could have achieved so much more than music will ever know.


1 Eric Roseberry. “Personal integrity and public service: the voice of the symphonist”, in The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich. (Cambridge University Press, 2008). 21.
2 Shostakovich later arranged his Fourth Symphony for two pianos. In 1946, he re-orchestrated the symphony.
3 Evan Mawdsley. The Stalin Years: The Soviet Union 1929-1953. (Manchester University Press. 1998). 54-55.
4 Ibid., 35.
5 Ibid., 36.
6 Ibid., 58.
7 Wendy Lesser. Music for Silenced Voices. (Yale University Press, 2011). 26.
8 Roseberry. The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich, 21.
9 Mawdsley. The Stalin Years, 95.
10 Ibid., 100.
11 Ibid.,138.


Lesser, Wendy. Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets. Yale University Press, 2011.

Mawdsley, Evan. The Stalin Years: The Soviet Union 1929-1953. Manchester: Manchester University Press,1998.

Morgan, Robert P. Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Muscial Style in Modern Europe and America. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1991.

Roseberry, Eric. “Personal integrity and public service: the voice of the symphonist”, in The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich, 8-21. Edited by Pauline Fairclough and David Fanning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Shostakovich, Dmitri. Symphony No. 4, Op 43. London: Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd. London, 1962.

Photograph of Ashlee Albertson

Ashlee Albertson is a senior from Midlothian, Virginia. She is majoring in Piano Performance. Upon graduation, she intends to pursue a career as a Music Therapist.

She would like to thank Dr. John Walker for his help and support throughout this project.