Tuesday, February 08, 2011
A Musical Life
Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony
A composer knows as little as anyone else where the substance of his music comes from. - Edgard Varese
Whenever I listen to a recording or hear a live performance, as I did this past weekend, of Dimitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, op. 47 I am reminded of my days in Madison, Wisconsin when I was a student at the University. Many Saturday mornings I would walk to the Madison Public Library and partake of their music listening room. It was on one of those Saturday mornings that I sat down with score in hand to listen to this amazing Symphony. I did not know the history of the music nor much about the biography of the composer, but the music spoke to me and told a story that brought me to tears with its beauty and emotional power. Years later I find the power of this music to move me has not diminished and, when performed by musicians the caliber of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Leonard Slatkin, it still moves me with the same power and beauty.
The story behind the music, of the terror of Stalin's purges that put fear in the minds of many Russians including Shostakovich, provides context but does not change the personal message that the artist sends directly to each individual listener. That message is in the clarity of form and brilliance of orchestration, the contrast from the tragic depths at moments in the opening movement to the heights of brilliant exhaltation in the finale. Whether the humor of the Allegretto is merely satirical or perhaps, considering Shostakovich's whole oeuvre, more a classical attempt to create balance in the work of art; and, if the brilliance of the finale is ironic in tone, what is important is the totality of the experience of this music as an affirmation of humanity by one man -- a musician and a hero.