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Essay: Protest, Nationalism and Patriotism in Shostakovich’s Symphonies No. 5 and 7

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  • Protest, Nationalism and Patriotism in Shostakovich’s Symphonies No. 5 and 7
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Much of the analytical research of Shostakovich’s works during the era of the Second World War has focused primarily on his symphonies composed at this time. The research done pinpoints many distinct passages within his symphonies that show how he protested the Russian State and specifically Joseph Stalin. I will focus my analysis on the methods of protest, nationalism and patriotism that are found in Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 and Symphony No.7. What are some of the most common methods of encryption that Shostakovich used to show his disdain for the Stalin Regime? What traits do these pieces share? How did he evoke the feelings of patriotism and nationalism in these two works while still expressing the suffering and repression of the Russian people? How did external factors effect the interpretation of these works?

It is important to understand the limits placed on musical composition during the time of the Stalin Regime in order to analyze the methods used by Shostakovich to express his individualism yet conform to acceptable Party standards. Stalin did not support anything that resembled Western culture since he believed it did not agree with the communist philosophy. At one point in Soviet Russia, there existed a group called the Association of Contemporary Musicians that was pro-West and forward thinking.  This group eventually fell out of favor with the Party and was ultimately replaced with another group in 1932 called the Union of Soviet Composers. As the composer organizations evolved in the Stalin Era, they influenced what was considered acceptable music by the Party. The Union of Soviet Composers was part of the Ministry of Culture and the year 1932 was the beginning of the Party’s direct influence on composition. The music was to promote the Party agenda and composers were expected to submit their works to the Union of Soviet Composers for approval if they wanted the support of the Communist Party. The cultural movement at the time was toward nationalism.  Social realism was applied to the music of this era. Music was to express the labor and success of the worker through traditional Russian and Soviet songs. Simplicity was to be an element in the compositional style.  Stalin and the Party were to be glorified through appropriate nationalistic themes.  These facts are all important when considering the elements found in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and No.7.

The Fifth Symphony was written in response to events that were occurring in the Soviet Union under Stalin.  It was necessary to have music the approval of the Party officials and Stalin in order to survive.  He was adapting to pressure to compose less complicated music that would fit into the styles acceptable to social realism yet he needed to stay true to his beliefs.  Due to the political atmosphere of the time Shostakovich could not express his opinions, ideas, or views openly if they were contrary to the party line. At this time, the Great Purge or Great Terror was taking place during Stalin’s reign where he eliminated anyone not loyal to his ideals. The party had disapproved of Shostakovich’s previous musical compositions as too technical or harsh. The opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District which was performed in 1934 was at first well received.  However, when Stalin attended the opera, he found the themes and music “pre-socialist, petty-bourgeois, Russian mentality”  and not in line with appropriate Communist views.  The official state-run newspaper Pravda gave the opera a poor review.  In addition, several editorials were disparaging concerning the opera. Thus, Shostakovich got the message to project the party line through his music. The individual was not important. The choice was to comply or become invisible.  In addition during this time, many of Shostakovich’s friends and relatives had been arrested or sent to the Gulag, or just disappeared. He was afraid that he might suffer the same fate. Shostakovich had to develop a style that would be acceptable to the party yet discretely portray his musical views and expressions. The Fifth Symphony was to be an example of his political transformation on display to the party conforming to the style of heroic classicism.

In the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich was demonstrating how the Communists could influence a composer’s writing yet still find a way to express his individual feelings. The Symphony is structured around a framework of several recurring melodic and rhythmic motives. It begins with an intense statement between the lower and upper strings. As the movement progresses more instruments are added, and the intensity increases. A melancholy melody is introduced by the first violins and replayed by the woodwinds over the first rhythmic theme. This could be viewed as the serious efforts of the workers as they persevere in building their country. The first thing the listener hears in the first five measures of the music is a very agitated melody from the strings. This motive serves as the most frequently occurring melodic and rhythmic component to the piece and is littered throughout the rest of the work. This rather intense melody quickly loses steam and dies off into the second frequently recurring melodic motive.  In this motive, Shostakovich outlines a Russian folk song in the Violin 1 part starting at rehearsal marking “1” in the attached score. To better reach his audience, he knew he had to incorporate ideas that they would recognize. Shostakovich uses an ostinato on a single pitch beginning in measure 25 to introduce what could be considered a dysphoric motif.   As the movement progresses, the tempo accelerates as well as the dynamics eventually evolving into a march style. This is an indication of the power of the Soviet machine working to a positive end or resolution at the end of the movement with an ascending chromatic glockenspiel solo. Below the surface the first movement screams of tragedy and sadness throughout the beginning section.  Giving up in the end to the oppression of the Soviet machine with a harsh militaristic step in the march introduced by the percussion. The waltzing scherzo feel of the second movement is cumbersome at times and at times comical or light. The waltzes are performed in a series of minor keys. Shostakovich uses dynamics to assist in producing a satirical effect. The listener may feel uncomfortable or agitated due to the intensity of the rhythms.  To the regime, this movement may have seemed joyous or amusing. Possibly the main focal point of the Fifth Symphony as a whole is the incredibly passionate and moving third movement. To achieve this level of emotion Shostakovich combines a great number of factors.  In this movement, the brass are tacit with a focus on the strings, winds, harp and celesta to create a solemn, reverent selection. The third movement is serious and reflective and builds in intensity. Shostakovich doubles the string part and doubles the violins an octave up from their counterparts, which gives the motive a very mournful, weeping quality. The strings draw out a sad melody then the flute and oboe float above it.  Various solos in the winds weave throughout the piece. The powerful melody eventually gives way to a chorale-like moment at rehearsal marking 78. The accompanying strings begin to play sustained notes under a singing sorrowful melody from the first violin. The section sounds almost like a church hymn. The religious undertone is another example of the interjection of familiar material to appeal to his audience. As the movement continues, the strings fade into a drone that sits beneath other soloing instruments presenting their haunting renditions of the violin melody. The music builds slowly until it reaches the high point expressed by the xylophone and violin as the rest of the strings play a tremolo.  This movement could be interpreted as a solemn tribute to the perseverance of the worker, or it could be Shostakovich’s tribute to all those that were sent to labor camps and lost their lives.  It could be interpreted as the loss of old Mother Russia. In the finale of the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich goes to great lengths to prolong the resolution of the work. The movement itself builds out of the passion of the third movement and continuously intensifies into a march at rehearsal 121. However, the primary focus of attention on this movement is towards the end from just before rehearsal 133 through the end.  Here, Shostakovich adds more and more accidentals, taking the melodic pattern he states in the brass and continuously moving it upward. Because the other instruments are playing an ostinato that does not change keys, this adds a level of grotesque dissonance that makes it seem as though the piece is moving farther away from a satisfactory ending. It is not until rehearsal 134, where the brass plays the repeating three note motive from the beginning of the piece that we start to get some sense of the piece coming to a cadence. The accompaniment gets more and more bombastic throughout this section until the piece closes with unison hits on the bass drum and timpani underneath a blaring D major chord. The final movement of the symphony is a march played in a quick tempo. The march was an acceptable form of social realism. One theme found in this movement has a militaristic feeling, and an opposing theme seems to be expressing thoughtful resignation. Shostakovich uses ascending chromaticism and an ostinato section in the violins to suggest the success of the system, and the more serious middle section signifies the hard work of the individual.  On the surface, these ideas promote the Party agenda. Shostakovich claimed that this movement was satirizing the need for positive, uplifting music by the Party.  The movement ends in a major key on an A that is played over and over by the violins.  Sheinberg asks, “Is this a satirical sneer at the demand for optimism, or is it a genuine even if banal and overstated, expression of happiness?”   In this manner, he is expressing his opinion in a subtle musical manner. Shostakovich alludes to the song Vozrozhdenije (Op. 46 No.1) in the final movement that was based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin dealing with renewal or rebirth. This is Shostakovich’s new start or his rehabilitation as a composer Soviet style.  The Fifth Symphony is open to many interpretations pro-Stalin or musical satire. The Fifth Symphony was to be an example of his political transformation on display to the party conforming to the style of heroic classicism or social realism.

The Fifth Symphony was well received by the public. Genrikh Orlov postulates that the music expresses the state of the Soviet Union at the time it was composed.   In other words, the Fifth Symphony reflected struggles and sorrows of the people yet promotes the Party agenda.  Alexi Tolstoy said the Fifth Symphony was like a Soviet coming of age story for Shostakovich. He was forming a Soviet personality   Tolstoy states that the first movement presents a crisis of the mind.  The second movement provides a period of rest and relief.  In the third movement Tolstoy believes the Soviet personality begins to emerge. The finale represents triumph and movement toward optimism.  Tolstoy classified the audience reaction as a demonstration by the people that Shostakovich had reformed his musical style. “Our audience is organically incapable of accepting decadent, gloomy, pessimistic art. Our audience responds enthusiastically to all that is bright, clear, joyous, optimistic, life-affirming.”[]    At this time, Stalin was purging those thoughts and philosophies that did not conform to his ideals of social realism.  Many people suffered during the Stalin era.  Therefore, this Symphony seemed to evoke many different feelings. To some, it was an illustration of the mourning and loss inflicted by the regime.    Many people shed tears during the Largo portion of the Symphony at the first performance because it provided an outlet all that was occurring in their lives under Stalin.   The official party line was that the Fifth Symphony displayed a new direction in the composer’s pursuits.  It was a transformation that Party had orchestrated.   The Party’s support was a demonstration of its power to make an individual conform to its beliefs.   In the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich placated the party yet expressed his feelings and those of the public.

As World War II engulfed the Soviet Union, and Leningrad fell under siege Shostakovich composed the Seventh Symphony.  This symphony was completed in December of 1941.  However, according to Shostakovich, the Seventh Symphony was conceived prior to the attack by Germany on Leningrad.  As he planned the first movement, the atrocities of his government were foremost in his thoughts.    When the Nazi invasion occurred his thoughts seemed to transform, and he was envisioning the city \”that Stalin destroyed, and Hitler merely finished off.”  Shostakovich wanted the music to depict evil and tyranny inflicted by Germany on his country and also the evil and tyranny being inflicted on the Soviet people by their own government. However, he could only emphasize the German terror in public.   Censorship decreased during the Nazi invasion which gave Shostakovich more artistic freedom.  He wanted this symphony to reach a large audience, and he was inspired by Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.   The Seventh Symphony used both Russian and German themes that the government greeted with approval. For example, the first movement known as the invasion theme could be interpreted as the negative encroachment of the Nazis as they come into power in Germany and impart their ideals and views on the German people.  This is similar to how the Stalin regime transformed the views of the Soviet people. The snare drum solo could represent the agitation and the poor situation of the Germans after World War I. Next the Nazis introduce their ideals and begin to take over with grandiose promises of  jobs and prosperity for all, similar to the promises made by the Stalin regime. This could be represented by the flutes playing a lyrical melody over a dissonant accompaniment that represent the underlying evil.  Also detected in this movement is “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim,” from Franz Lehár\’s operetta The Merry Widow, one of Hitler\’s favorite operas.  In addition, the descending progression of bar seven resembles Deutschland Über Alles.    These were the German themes represented in the movement. As this movement continues, it becomes more and more dissonant and urgent giving the impression of a fall into the adversity of the war.  Shostakovich represents both the Russian plight under Stalin and the aggression of the Nazis through this section.  Shostakovich represents both the Russian plight under Stalin and the aggression of the Nazis through this section. The Soviet government supported the negative Nazi themes.

Parts of this symphony were composed during the actual siege during air raids and attacks.   During the first few weeks of the siege, Shostakovich refused to evacuate and continued writing.  He hoped that he would create a piece that would boost the morale of the Russian people. The Leningrad Symphony as a whole, while sharing some similarities with its earlier counterpart, is stylistically quite different and shows a slightly different side to Shostakovich’s writing. The Fifth Symphony contains melodies that are lush and flowing. It reflects Shostakovich’s transformation as a good Soviet composer. The overall mood of the Seventh Symphony can be viewed as more nationalistic, reflecting what was occurring at this time in Soviet history.  There are fewer flowing melodic lines, and he also plays with meter much more in this symphony, experimenting with more inconsistent meters like 7/4. Each movement of the symphony also contains a number of what can be described as battle scenes, no doubt reflecting the environment in which Shostakovich was composing at the time.  For example, in the first movement the music becomes more and more frantic until the trumpets loudly introduce the arrival of the Germans with scales that ascend and descend consecutively.  As the tempo increases the brass imitate the air raid sirens.  In addition, the repetition of themes and ostinatos in the first movement seem to represent the stupidity of war according to Sheinberg.    The statement of the first theme, which makes numerous appearances in various forms throughout the work, makes it clear that this is going to be a work representative of the Russian people as a whole: strong, resilient and united. The theme itself contains several rhythmic ideas that are quite similar to those in the main theme from the Fifth Symphony (marked in the score). The first movement is essentially shaped like one large crescendo. After the first theme is stated, the fanfare fades off into a very passionate melody. The quiet section is a transition into what is often called the invasion theme.  At the measure marking 19, a snare drum ostinato enters and establishes a new tempo. The presence of the snare drum in and of itself is a very important motive throughout, returning just before each battle or the arrival of each battle. This section can be described as the march to war or the battle about to ensue.  In this section, snippets and alterations of other selections are subtly heard.  The second movement begins with a scherzo-like theme in the string section but later in the movement the winds interrupt with a raucous theme reminiscent of the siege and battle.   The movement starts with a string trio and expands outward from there. Stylistically, it sounds like a neo-classical dance, scherzo, and a lyric intermezzo.  Initially, a light, lilting theme is introduced by the strings. The classical elements appear as clear phrases and cadences at first, but the dance seems almost broken as various other instruments seem to be playing their random tunes.  The meter shifts quite frequently and the number of accidentals involved makes the dance sound much sadder in some places and grotesque in others.  One could interpret this as the aftermath of the battle as it paints an image of almost confusion and shell shock. Gradually the movement manages to organize itself into a very haunting waltz just after rehearsal 82 with a solo melody provided by the clarinet. As other instruments enter, the meter continues to shift, throwing off the feel of the waltz.  Each part seems to be almost clashing with one another making the entrances increasingly dissonant before giving way to another fanfare reminiscent of the culmination point of the first movement.  One could interpret this as the aftermath of the battle as it paints an image of almost confusion and shell shock. Gradually the movement manages to organize itself into a very haunting waltz just after rehearsal 82 with a solo melody provided by the clarinet. As other instruments enter, the meter continues to shift, throwing off the feel of the waltz.  Each part seems to be almost clashing with one another making the entrances increasingly dissonant before giving way to another fanfare reminiscent of the culmination point of the first movement.  Shostakovich used the Seventh Symphony to portray images of both the events occurring around the World War II siege of Leningrad and his view of the Stalin regime.

The Seventh Symphony was highly regarded in the Soviet Union as a statement of the suffering and deaths attributed to Nazis and the resilience of its citizens. The first performances were greeted with ovations and tears as the country mourned the many losses received at the hands of their oppressors.     Alexei Tolstoy recognized the unconstrained outpouring of emotion the symphony evoked.  He wrote an admirable review of the work in the Soviet paper, Pravda.    In his evaluation of the symphony, Tolstoy projected the acceptable views of nationalism and patriotism espoused by Stalin.   The Seventh Symphony became part of a propaganda campaign as it was played throughout the Soviet Union.  The staging of the Leningrad performance at the Astoria Hotel was on August 9, 1942, this was the day that Hitler had selected to celebrate the capitulation of Leningrad if it had occurred.  The performance was transmitted through the city and out to the Nazis on the front lines in order to discourage the troops.    In the United States, the symphony was also part of the war propaganda to sell the alliance between the Soviet Union and the West in fighting the Nazis as a united front.   The first performance in the United States was in July 1942.  The performance was by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by  Toscanini.  Overall, the Seventh Symphony was performed 62 times from 1942 -1943 symphony season.

In conclusion, Shostakovich adapted his musical style to the requirements of the Stalin regime. In doing so, he incorporated nationalistic and patriotic themes in his music that were familiar to the Russian people, and reflected social realism. The Fifth Symphony was his rebirth as an acceptable Soviet musician after his previous opera was criticized by the Communist leadership. While expressing the approved musical styles, the Fifth Symphony can also be interpreted as having a hidden satirical meaning present in the music. The Seventh Symphony came to represent the siege of Leningrad and could instill patriotic feelings in the country. However, Shostakovich could also have been commenting on the struggles of the Russian people under Communism. Shostakovich used repetition, dissonance, chromaticism, complex rhythms and layering techniques to communicate the acceptable norms for Soviet music, and to couch his own meanings in these two works.

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