So what actually happened? Was Shostakovich’s Symphony ‘good’ enough to save him? And will we ever know what message he meant to convey in the music?
On November 21, 1937, the Fifth Symphony had its ‘public’ premiere with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Yevgeniy Mravinsky conducting. Public enthusiasm ran high, and the New York Times wire service reported the next day that “Composer Regains His Place in Soviet.” Ironically, the overwhelmingly enthusiastic public response caused an initial Party backlash. Isaak Dunayevsky, Chairman of the Leningrad branch of the Union of Composers, wrote in January that “The brilliant mastery of the Fifth Symphony … does not preclude the fact it does not by any means display all the healthy symptoms for the development of Soviet Symphonic Music.” A private performance for party officials was arranged, and finally the work was accepted as “an optimistic tragedy.”
Shostakovich made all the right statements publicly: I wanted to convey in the symphony how, through a series of tragic conflicts of great inner spiritual turmoil, optimism asserts itself as a world-view … There is nothing more honorable for a composer than to create works for and with the people. The attention to music on the part of our government and all the Soviet people instills in me the confidence that I will be able to give everything that is in my power.
But from the beginning many have asserted that the symphony has a secret message of scorn, despair, and condemnation. If the truth was elusive eighty years ago, it is even more so now; as Michael Tilson Thomas asks: “Can we trust our ears today to understand these notes as they were meant when the work was written?”
We will probably never have a definitive answer. In the end, the decision is one that each conductor, and each listener, must make for himself.