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Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5. Analysis by Gerard Schwarz (part 1)

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Video transcript

- When we look at symphonic music of the 20th century, Shostakovich, obviously, is one of the greatest of the 20th century composers. He wrote 15 fantastic symphonies. He made his first impact with the first symphony, a student work, and it was a sensation. Already people heard something very special in this composer. The next piece of real significance, symphonically, was the fourth symphony. By now he had written an opera, Lady Macbeth, which had been criticized by Stalin in Pravda. And when Stalin didn't like a piece, you're on the edge. All of a sudden, you might be in trouble. He was criticized for his associations. He was criticized for his music being formula-less music, whatever that may mean. It wasn't patriotic enough. It wasn't simple enough for the people. And he once was questioned and he was gonna be questioned some more by the predecessors of the KGB. Fortunately for Shostakovich, the man who was doing the questioning became questioned himself, and then Shostakovich was safe a while. So we arrive at 1937, and it's time for the premiere of his fourth symphony. His friends were concerned. Mravinsky was gonna do the premiere of the fourth symphony in Saint Petersburg, and they decided to cancel the premiere. They were afraid that it would meet with a bad reception from the authorities. And after being so severely criticized, he didn't wanna take that chance. So then he wrote the fifth symphony, and Shostakovich wrote very quickly. So in the spring he started, by the summer he finished. It was premiered in Saint Petersburg by Mravinsky in the winter, and was a huge sensation. In a way, if he was in trouble, that piece saved his life. The first movement is absolutely staggering in its concept. I think it's important to know that by the time we're here in 1937, composers were much freer about form. So where Beethoven or Schumann pretty much worked in the first movement in what we call sonata form where you have the exposition, where all of the material is exposed, the development, all of that material is developed, and then recapitulation, where all that material is reprised, composers like Shostakovich, yes, they did some of that, and sometimes they dedicated it absolutely in an old-fashioned way. Other times it was very free form. This symphony's first movement, even though it feels very organic, it feels like it belongs the way it's written, is very much in the style of being free form. It begins in an interesting way. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) It's an introduction, but it's an aggressive introduction and it's a canon. It starts with the cellos and the basses. They play this, (simple piano music) and then the violins play, and then the cellos and the basses. And the violins. And then that canonic gesture carries on now. (simple piano music) So the cellos and the basses, and then the repeat violas. And that becomes the accompaniment to the melody played by the first violins. It's lyrical. Sad, for me it's a sad melody. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) And then all of a sudden one wind instrument playing additional material in unison with the pizzicato plucked cellos and basses. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) Eventually the woodwinds enter. For about this whole section, the woodwinds will come in playing new material but the strings will come in again playing. (simple piano music) You'll hear, (simple piano music) coming back in. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) Next comes the second theme. The accompaniment now, again, we talked about how simple Shostakovich's accompaniments are. He has this rhythm that he uses all the time. It's long, short, short, long, short, short. (rhythmic piano music) That is the accompaniment to the melody played by the first violins. This theme gets reduced at times. We call that diminution. It's made into a smaller gesture and, at times, it's augmented. We call that augmentation, where it's made into a bigger gesture. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) This theme gets then changed to be a viola melody, and in this piece, the very high violas have the say. One could say, why does Shostakovich write for the high violas? That's the violin range. But I think that there's a different sound, and having the violas struggling in the highest register to play this melody beautifully is very different from having the violins play it easily and simply. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) This leads us to the development section. Now, it's interesting that it starts with the double basses and the piano in the low register, playing. (rhythmic piano music) Notice the rhythm. Bah-bah-bum, bah-bah-bum. Short, short, long, short, short, long. And then the melody that I told you about, remember the violin's playing. (simple piano music) well now that theme is made into very long notes, much longer, and in the very lowest register of the horn. Again, from the violas playing too high, (laughs) you're gonna hear the horns playing too low. And then the trumpets come in also playing in the very lowest register. Shortly after that, the woodwinds enter. When they enter, they play that same theme except they play it fast. Again, if you were just listening to it, you wouldn't even notice it. It just all seems to fit. But now that I point it out to you and you hear it in the orchestra, you say, oh, wow, look what he's doing there. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) Next we have that second theme, but this time it's condensed. The woodwinds play it twice, three times faster. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) Finally, it leads to the grotesque march. You have that same rhythm, long, short, short, long, short, short, long, except played by the snare drum. In this case we have to use a low pitched snare drum. Dup-ba-da-dum, ba-da-dum, ba-da-dum, ba-da-dum. And the trumpets and the brass play that same first theme of the violins in a march in a very aggressive way. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) Eventually all the woodwinds join and all the brass join in and it builds up to this tremendous climax where we have the same material from the very beginning of the piece in a canon with the upper woodwinds and the upper strings and the middle range woodwinds and the middle range strings, but playing it much, much faster. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) It just feels like everything's gonna explode, and it does. It builds up to an incredible climax. He slows it down. Now most people would go faster for the climax. He brings it back and brings it back. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) The whole orchestra is playing that theme, theme one, that first theme in unison. It's the end of the development or it's the beginning or the recapitulation. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) I do this bringing all the material back from the beginning in this very loud way, in a very free way, like a recitativo, and it's punctuated by the timpani and the brass. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) When it comes to an end, we again go back to the same long, short, short, long accompaniment, and this time the flute plays the melody, the second melody. But there's an incredible answer by the horn. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) It's a magical moment, a duet for the flute and the horn. And the horn, again, into the highest register. Very difficult, and a great, great moment which leads us to what we can call the coda, which is also fascinating because what happens is that theme that we know so well, (simple piano music) is played in what we call inversion. So instead of going down, it goes up. (simple piano music) This time played by the flute. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) We've heard that punctuation of the timpani and the trumpets at the end of the recitativo. Now he uses that punctuation but very, very softly. And he writes a solo for the piccolo and the solo violin. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) Poignant ending. And at the end, he brings in the celesta. And it just evaporates.