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To truly understand the music of Shostakovich, we have first to comprehend something of the political climate in which this great composer wrote the majority of his music.
For most of his life, Shostakovich studied, worked and composed within the oppressive confines of Josef Stalin’s particularly toxic brand of communism. The government was both deeply suspicious of, and threatened by, artistic freedom and creativity. For Shostakovich and his contemporaries, writing music took place in the shadow of judgement that could lead to severe punishment, should they be deemed to have stepped out of line.
That’s exactly what happened when, in 1936, Stalin’s authorities decreed Shostakovich’s music for the opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, to be inappropriate. Fear gripped the composer: his next work, the Symphony No.5, would simply have to meet with approval. At the same time, though, Shostakovich was no lapdog. He valued his own integrity, and was not about to compose a saccharine work simply to appease the government.
Thankfully, the new piece was a great success, both artistically and politically. Following its premiere in the autumn of 1937, the work’s popularity grew rapidly. Today, it remains his best-known symphony. across four movements, Shostakovich tackles all manner of human emotions. Apparently, at the work’s premiere, many members of the audience wept during the sublime third movement.
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Naxos: 8572461.
Illustration: Mark Millington