Following its premiere there was widespread speculation—from an ‘official’ review by Alexei Tolstoy to Shostakovich’s son Maxim’s remarks many years later—about just what Shostakovich was saying. Reading how others interpreted the music may help you decide what you think this controversial symphony means.
There have been many explanations for the intense emotion found in this slow movement. Having considered the evidence, what is yours?
“The third movement is a requiem for people who died. It’s a prayer for their souls … And that is one of the most touching, moving moments of the whole piece, of the whole 5th Symphony.”
—Alexander Barantschik, San Francisco Symphony Concertmaster
“Once Dmitri Dmitriyevich thrust a magazine in front of me, pointing at a certain page. There I read that the Largo was permeated with ‘an atmosphere of dejection and of morgue.’ Dmitri Dmitriyevich kept his silence about this famous critic’s ‘discovery’, but his expression could not disguise his bewilderment.”
“The third movement is the highest achievement of lyricism in all of Shostakovich’s work. It compares well with a Mahler adagio. Very intimate. Shostakovich divides the violins into three parts to increase the number of voices. It is the last night at home of a man sentenced to the gulag; but the problem is eternal! It could be a man before his execution ... I see a man who spends his last night before execution with his family. He hears his children breathe. He feels the warmth of his wife. But HE DOES NOT CRY OUT!”
“Here the personality submerges itself in the great epoch that surrounds it, and begins to resonate with the epoch.”
—Alexei Tolstoy’s review