Neeme Järvi / Scottish National Orchestra
The young Dmitri Shostakovich was very much the revolutionary who wanted his music to serve the socialist state. "I am a Soviet composer, and I see our epoch as something heroic," he wrote, later adding "I consider that every artist who isolates himself from the world is doomed." He came to maturity during that artistically fruitful and highly active period in Russia immediately after the death of Lenin. A career as a concert pianist looked a strong possibility, for his graduation recital in 1923 was a sensation. But it was his First Symphony, written at the age of 19, while he was a pupil of Maximilian Steinbnerg at the Leningrad Conservatoire, that gave him an international reputation. It was quickly taken up by Bruno Walter, Stokowsky, and Toscanini among others. Two further symphonies followed before the end of the twenties, both at first enormously popular in the USSR. The second, his October Symphony, written for the tenth anniversary of The Revolution when he was only 21, was simultaneously premiered in four Russian cities. Such works exemplify his youthful revolutionary fervour, their technique coloured by his aptitude for writing for the popular media of the stage and the screen, into which he put his considerable energies up to about the age of 35. The latter include his opera The Nose, the ballets The Age of Gold and The Bolt, music for pioneering plays and films, and, at the age of 27, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
However, the opera was to be the young composer's undoing, for in January 1936 Stalin attended a performance. The climate of the time strongly advised a concept of 'Socialist Realism,' and the work was immediately condemned in and editorial in Pravda, as was his ballet Bright Stream. It was a time of danger for the composer, and he suppressed his Fourth Symphony after rehearsals had started and responded with his Fifth to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution, with its now well-known tag 'A Soviet Artist's Reply To Just Criticism.'
Shostakovich's Fifth was first performed in Leningrad on November 21, 1927, and it was received with tremendous enthusiasm. Shostakovich's friend, the cellist and conductor Rostropovich, has suggested that it was only the forty-minute ovation that greeted the first performance that saved Shostakovich from the same fate as his mentor, the celebrated producer Meyerhold, who disappeared.
How should we see Shostakovich's Fifth? Before its first performance in Moscow, the composer was quoted as defining it as a 'lyro-heroic symphony.'
"Its main idea is man's emotional experiences and all-conquering optimism. I wanted to show how, overcoming a series of tragic conflicts arising in the intense struggle which rages in one's soul, optimism is born as a world-outlook." He has also admitted that "any work of art contains autobiographical traits" and on another occasion added "the theme of my symphony is the making of a man."
The Ballet Suites 1 to 5 present a variety of movements from Shostakovich's youthful ballet, theatre and film scores, and the fifth of these comprises eight movements from his three-act ballet The Bolt, written in 1930-31 and first performed at the Kirov Opera and Ballet Theatre, Leningrad, on April 8, 1931. The setting is a Soviet factory: drunken workers are sacked and in revenge one tries to sabotage a lathe by persuading the operator to drop a bolt into the machine. At the last minute the machinist repents and the saboteur is arrested. The music is extremely vivid in the composer's headlong rhythmic poster pantomine style, satirizing the bourgeois.
Since Shostakovich's death it has become clear that he put into his music sentiments that in any other art would have resulted in direct opposition of the Soviet State.