Sunday, August 5, 2012

New York Philharmonic: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5

Artistic Freedom

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, performs Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47, in a 1979 concert. You can view and, more important, listen, to the fourth movement here.

Dmitri Shostakovich [1906-1975] completed this orchestral work in July 1937, working under tremendous personal and artistic pressure to make the work comply with the narrow strictures of Soviet realism. There was a huge personal danger for failure under the inhumane Stalinist regime, the knife-edge of terror being the Stalinist Purges, it alone responsible for millions of its citizens, chiefly males, being murdered, and similar numbers exiled to long sentences into the blackness of the Gulag, its forced-labor camps.

Such were the restrictions to which Shostakovich had to compose music, an art form that usually requires better more open conditions. Yet, the human spirit can rise to the challenge of dark times, and this composition—a masterpiece—is no exception. Its first performance was in Leningrad, Russia (now Saint Petersburg) by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Yevgeny Mravinsky on November 21, 1937. It was a huge and monumental success; the public deeply identified with its musical themes, including its melancholy and grief. Even the Soviet leaders could not ignore it.