Russian Stars: Medvedev, Rublev, and Shostakovitch’s Fifth

On the day Russia–or Putin–invaded Ukraine, the Russian tennis star, Daniil Medvedev, became the #1 player in the world. At his match that night in Acapulco, his wife, Daria Medvedeva, was seen subtly wearing the colors of Ukraine. In Dubai at another tournament, Medvedev’s compatriot, Andrey Rublev, the 7th ranked tennis players in the world, wrote “No War Please” on a courtside camera after the match. His message was shown everywhere in the world. Everywhere except back home in Russia.

In Shostokovitch’s Symphony #5 (1937), he had to find much more secretive ways of speaking out. He had to write music that would be approved by Stalin. As Shostakovitch states this constant pressure: “Awaiting execution is a theme that has tormented me all my life.”

First Movement: Phrases keep collapsing into repeated notes. Dead end. Dead end. Dead end.  The opening tragic exchange between high and low strings collapses. The Black Marias are everywhere. Two million will be taken. No notes are safe. Shostakovitch trots out a triumphant march for snare drum and trumpets rising and rising in dotted rhythms of goose-stepping soldiers. Irony? Bombast? Triumph? We know war is coming. Who cares how the soldiers march?

Second Movement: The second movement’s scherzo seems punch-drunk angry or sardonic comical, each note like a Chaplinesque pie in the face of Stalin or the Russian people. Is this music for the circus? Comic relief? Shostakovitch sleeps in the stairwell to protect his family at night.

Third Movement: No one’s allowed to pray in public. No one’s allowed to weep. At the Russian premiere of Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony, the audience weeps openly throughout the third movement. The strings divided up into choirs remind listeners of the music of the Russian Orthodox church. Is the third movement a forbidden prayer for the dead? The lone, plaintive voice of the oboe offers two three note phrases of sighs. Can anyone bear so much pain?

Fourth Movement: A long trill introduces a grotesque march led by the trombones and tubas. Just as Beethoven does in his fifth, Shostakovitch ends his symphony triumphantly with a thumping ending and a turn to the major key. As Shostakovitch put it: “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’

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