Virtual Music Hour

  Shostakovich Archive

  Introduction to Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

  Listen to the Music

Movement 1

Movement 2

Movement 3

Movement 4


Welcome to Virtual Music Hour. In preparation for your listening experience, Assistant Principal Violist Catherine Beeson has made guides with activities that can be enjoyed alone, with your quarantine buddies at home and online, or with your students. These activities can be mixed, matched, and altered to create an experience that’s right for you, or as inspiration to create your own. Get as creative as you’d like. Share it with us on social media! If you like seeing and hearing the Colorado Symphony musicians online, imagine how uplifting it would be for us to see and hear you too!

Dmitri Shostakovich is one of the most influential and revered composers of the 20th century, and his Symphony No. 5 holds a similar place of honor. It is easily his best-known work, captivating listeners with the same intensity of engagement after multiple hearings as the first. Enjoy learning about Shostakovich, the piece, and listening to your Colorado Symphony’s performance.

  Dmitri Shostakovich composed Symphony No. 5 in just four months during 1937 when he was 31 years old. It was premiered in Leningrad that same year and was an immediate success.

  Symphony No. 5 lasts for about 45 minutes and is in four movements, or musical chapters. The symphony follows a traditional structure of fast paced outer movements with dance form and slow inner movements.

  Symphony No. 5 was unusual in that it was considered successful by both the public and by official Stalinist regime music critics. Authorities who had previously threatened Shostakovich for composing anti-Stalinist music found he had conformed to their requirements, while the general public heard it clearly expressing their point of view of suffering under Stalin’s regime.

  Random fun fact: No matter how young or old he is in his photos, people always seem to note that Shostakovich resembles Harry Potter.


  Shostakovich’s score calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 clarinets and E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, a whole bunch of percussion - snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 harps, piano, and celesta - and the usual string section of violins, violas, cellos, and basses.

Here is a listening map that can guide you through your listening experience. Read it in advance or while you’re listening!

Movement 1

Moderato - Allegro non troppo
In English:  Moderate - Quick but not too much

The first music we hear is a quick rising and falling gesture in the strings which is layered in such a way as to sound like a very stressed out round or canon. It feels a little like we’ve happened upon a story partway into its telling. Then we hear the violins playing a broad lyrical main theme.

A second theme built around a less stressful sounding version of the opening rising and falling gesture is introduced by the violas beginning in their higher pitch range and then descending to a cello hand-off. These two themes become the subject of experimentation in the middle section of the piece from different instruments playing in different styles before they are returned near the end to their original state. The music finishes with a fade-out on the celesta.

Shostakovich lived in a difficult time to be an expressive creator. During the time Stalin was in power in Russia, all art needed to be turned toward pro-Stalin propaganda or its creator would be denounced and possibly imprisoned or killed. It’s challenging for Americans to fully comprehend the level to which writers, artists, composers, choreographers, and other creatives had to hide their true voice within their work during this time. Our era of McCarthyism comes close, but the United States’ collective cultural trait of stubborn optimism differs substantially from that of Russian cultural traits that have been trained to look for encoded messages in support of truth, even if it confirms tragedy and suffering.

Shostakovich composed his 5th symphony at just 31 years of age, after he had become influential as a rising star composer, but before his career had been fully established. He had received harsh criticism from the government for works just prior to Symphony No. 5 and was therefore treading very carefully to compose music that would speak to the Russian people while at the same time mollifying official Stalinist regime art critics. He was writing for his life, but also to respect the lives and the cultural expression of his community. Amazingly, in Symphony No. 5 he managed to successfully do both. Regime officials bought into his PR spin, their official critics determined he had upheld the required artistic pro Stalin standards, and the people heard their own truths of suffering and resilience reflected in the music.

  Consider and discuss this popular meme and how its tone and meaning might translate within the context of mid/late 20th century culture and history.

If this was your first time listening to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and you knew nothing about the history of its creation, you might almost hear it as a grand scale adventure story with a LOT of drama, a few brief hopeful moments, and all of a sudden, a quick happy ending. Take a moment to recall a story from your youth that wraps up with some version of “and they all lived happily ever after”. Usually there’s some wild and scary stuff happening in that story. Really awful villains making a lot of really awful trouble for a really long time, and then the hero pops up and does something good and the story is over just like that! Shostakovich wrote his music with hidden messages just like some of these stories have.

  What do you think might happen in the story or stories you’ve recalled if they didn’t end with “and they all lived happily ever after”?

  What happens the next day?

  How are the characters in the story affected by their experiences?

  What about their families or their communities?

Gather your quarantine buddies and have a contest to come up with some alternate “what happens next” endings! Set a timer and work quickly without thinking too much about it. Compare your alternate endings and discuss their similarities or differences. Go ahead and argue for which you think are the best and why! Now think about Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

  Was he writing a true “happily ever after” ending or do you think he had more story to tell?

  If there’s more to the story how do you think he might’ve told it in music?

  How would you write the story of YOUR life in music? Give it a try!

Now that you’ve had a chance to consider, discuss, and get active around Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, it’s time to listen to the Colorado Symphony performance. There are all sorts of ways to engage as a listener, especially when listening at home instead of the concert hall. Sing/hum/whistle along, move and dance, journal or draw what you hear, or just turn the volume up and listen for sheer pleasure! Please share your experience with us! We would love to hear about it or see any of your activities, journaling, or creations!



Please share your musical adventure with us through social media! We would love to hear about it or see any of your activities, journaling, or creations!


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