Shostakovich sought the aid of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, one of the highest-ranking officers in the Red Army and since 1925 a patron of the composer. However, the marshal himself became a victim, convicted on a trumped-up charge of treason and shot. Many of Shostakovich's friends and relatives were arrested and disappeared, and for a year the composer feared the same would happen to him. He completed his Fourth Symphony in April but withdrew the work the following year while it was in rehearsal.
This was the situation Shostakovich faced in April 1937. If he were to do anything but yield to Party pressure, it would have to be subtle, as all eyes would be on him and whatever composition he wrote. His form of musical satire had been denounced and would not be tolerated so blatantly again. Falling back on venting his tragic side cautiously whilst otherwise toeing the line of socialist realism would amount to self-betrayal. He had to somehow turn the simplicity demanded by the authorities into a virtue, mocking it whilst in the process of turning it into great art.
One work, written 37 years earlier, had achieved this basic paradox—Mahler's Fourth Symphony. Mahler began his Fourth in a mode of childish simplicity, at which initial audiences scoffed. However, he developed his musical material in such a bewildering manner that even the most simple-minded listeners had to admit they had been fooled. Shostakovich could not enlighten less-aware listeners without risking at the very least a trip to the Gulag, but he could let the sharper-minded ones know what he was up to by reusing Mahler's opening gesture from the Fourth—repeating a single note over and over. Mahler's Fourth starts with 24 F sharps tapped in consort with sleighbells; the vaulting canon theme which comprises the first four bars of Shostakovich's Fifth descends to a motto rhythm of three repeated A's on the violins. These A's would become much more important later in the symphony.
Four months after he withdrew his Fourth Symphony, he began writing his Fifth. This work, he hoped, would mark his political rehabilitation, at least outwardly coming up to party expectations. It could pass for an example of the heroic classicism demanded by official policy. Shostakovich slimmed down his musical style considerably from the superabundance of the Fourth, with less orchestral color and a smaller breadth of scope. With this scaling down also came a refinement of his pithiness and a deepening of ambiguity. More importantly, Shostakovich found a language through which he could speak with power and eloquence over the following three decades. Paul Bekker, in describing Mahler's works, called this power Gesellschaftbildende Kraft, or literally "community-moulding power." It is the power to weld an audience together, uplifting and moving them in a single emotion-controlled wave, sweeping aside all intellectual reservations.
The official tone toward the Fifth Symphony was further set by a review by Alexei Tolstoy, who likened the symphony with the literary model of the Soviet Bildungsroman describing "the formation of a personality"—in other words, of a Soviet personality. In the first movement, the composer-hero suffers a psychological crisis giving rise to a burst of energy. The second movement provides respite. In the third movement, the personality begins to form: "Here the personality submerges itself in the great epoch that surrounds it, and begins to resonate with the epoch." With the finale, Tolstoy wrote, came victory, "an enormous optimistic lift." As for the ecstatic reaction of the audience to the work, Tolstoy claimed it showed Shostakovich's perestroyka to be sincere. "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."
Not everyone agreed with Tolstoy, even after another article reportedly by the composer echoed Tolstoy's views. Asafiev, for one, wrote, "This unsettled, sensitive, evocative music which inspires such gigantic conflict comes across as a true account of the problems facing modern man—not one individual or several, but mankind." The composer himself seemed to second this view long after the fact, in a conversation with author Chinghiz Aitmatov in the late 1960s. "There are far more openings for new Shakespeares in today's world," he said, "for never before in its development has mankind achieved such unanimity of spirit: so when another such artist appears, he will be able to express the whole world in himself, like a musician."
At the height of the Stalinist Terror, over half a million people were shot and another seven million despatched to the Gulag in just over a year's time. Conservative estimates place the Gulag population at between nine and 15 million. The apparent motives for the Terror were three-fold. The first was to stop independent thought so Stalin could hold onto power. The second was to stock a plentiful slave-labor force. The third was to smash conventional social relations and effectively place everyone in a form of solitary confinement. Next came brainwashing through propaganda, to replace personal feelings with communal ones; this process was interrupted by World War II but resumed after its close, reaching its zenith around 1950. The goal was to produce a population of human robots programmed to love only the state. Nadezhda Mandelstam remembered,
We were capable of coming to work with a smile on our face after a night in which our home had been searched or a member of the family arrested. It was essential to smile—if you didn't, it meant you were afraid or discontented. This nobody could afford to admit—if you were afraid, then you must have a bad conscience. The mask was taken off only at home; and then not always—even from your children you had to conceal how horror-struck you were; otherwise, God save you, they might let something slip in school.
It was people in this society of masks who filed smiling into Philharmonic Hall in Leningrad to hear Shostakovksh's Fifth Symphony for the first time. It was people in this society of masks who broke down and wept during the largo. The music, steeped in an atmosphere of mourning, contained echoes of the panikhida, the Russian Orthodox requiem. It also recalled a genre of Russian symphonic preludes written in memory of the dead. These included pieces by Glazunov, Steinberg, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. Typical of these works is the use of the tremolo in the strings as a reference to the hallowed ambience of the requiem.
For an audience that had lost friends and family on a massive scale, these references were apt to evoke intense emotions. This was why the Fifth Symphony was received and cherished by the Soviet public unlike any other work as an expression of the immeasurable grief they endured during Stalin's regime.
By simultaneously pleasing the authorities with the Fifth Symphony while giving the audience an outlet for their sorrow, Shostakovich showed how effectively he had mastered the essence of the Romantic symphony. Bruckner and Mahler had developed the symphony into a genre working specific musical images and allusions into a network through which each listener could interpret and evaluate on personal grounds. This transcendence of concrete content allowed for varied—and opposing—readings of the musico-emotional content of a symphony while also rendering a definitive account of its meaning impossible. Shostakovich may owe his artistic survival to his mastery of this genre and its now-inherent blurring of boundaries. While satisfying the Soviet demand for monumentality and classicism, it left room for personal expression.
Western critics who heard the Fifth tended to belittle it as a concession to political pressure. It could be argued in retrospect that Shostakovich made no significant concession to authority in writing the Fifth, with the arguable exception of the bombast in the finale. Had the composer truly wanted to make concessions, he could have written a work closer in specifics to socialist realism, such as a programme symphony or a "song symphony." Instead, he challenged prevailing taste by writing an abstract work that simply avoided some of the excesses of his Fourth Symphony. In doing so, he made the new piece a better one by his own standards.
Shostakovich returned to the traditional four-movement form and a normal-sized orchestra. More tellingly, he organized each movement along clear lines, having concluded that a symphony cannot be a viable work without firm architecture. The harmonic idiom in the Fifth is less astringent, more tonal than previously, and the thematic material is more accessible. Nevertheless, every bar bears its composer's personal imprint. The best qualities of Shostakovich's music, such as meditation, humor and grandeur, blend in perfect balance and self-fulfillment.
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.
This is symbolised by the repeated "A"'s at the end of the final movement in the violin and upper woodwind sections. It includes a quotation from the composer's song "Rebirth", accompanying the words "A barbarian painter" who "blackens the genius's painting". In the song, the barbarian's paint falls away and the original painting is reborn. It has been suggested that the barbarian and the genius are Stalin and Shostakovich respectively. The work is largely sombre despite the composer's official claim that he wished to write a positive work.
Though impossible to confirm, it seems evident in many passages that Shostakovich did not intend to compose a mindless triumphant symphony in an attempt to reenter the Russian music scene with the approval of the Stalinist regime. The march in the first movement is more of a parody of marching than one that draws the feet to tap the beat. The third movement is invariably sad, nostalgic and haunting rather than depicting the struggle of the working class or other progressive ideas. The fourth movement also introduces one of the only themes not based on the first two themes of the opening movement, drawn from a previous composition about an artist being criticised and the final moments of the symphony seem disguised.