Some Are More Equal Than Others

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the animals overthrow the despotic human leader who oppresses them. The animals form a cooperative self-government, which comes to be overseen by the pigs, owing to their superior intellect. Over the course of the book, conditions successively worsen for every animal – become worse even than under the human leadership – and everyone is working harder for less gain. Everyone, that is, except the pigs who assume more and more control and live more and more comfortably (with the aid of their bloodthirsty dogs and propaganda specialist, 'Squealer'.) ‘All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.’ 


After the 1936 Pravda article that trashed Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbethas bourgeois noise, Shostakovich was in deep trouble (see previous post, Perversion and Knotted-Knickers.) Stalin wasn’t fucking around. The arts posed a legitimate threat to the authority of the government because they gave voice to subversive thoughts. So the arts were heavily censored and controlled, with brute force when necessary. The modern equivalent is, of course, North Korea.  

So Shostakovich had to make a choice. He could defiantly stand up against a terrifying regime – and surely lose – or he could contritely humble himself and admit guilt and wrongdoing. (Can you imagine Taylor Swift being forced to apologize to Congress for an offensive song?) So he writes the Fifth Symphony and adds the subtitle, ‘A Soviet Artist’s response to just criticism’. He thus delivers the public mea culpa the government tacitly demanded.

Or did he… 

The Fifth Symphony

Screenshot 2017-07-06 21.30.16.png

The first movement opens with an austere canon, with hi and low strings pedantically repeating what the other just said. But this aggression quickly peters out with a 3-note motif that arrives at a dead-end. It will come back again and again throughout the symphony. A theme of bleak isolation in the high violins then reveals a truer and more confidential sentiment – something approaching resignation – as it floats over the frozen and lonely landscape of the accompaniment.

The movement develops these themes in an incredible variety of ways so that they become virtually unrecognizable. For instance, that floating violin theme is recast as a grotesque and heavy-footed military march, my favorite description of which likens it to a bragging boxer entering the arena surrounded by his phalanx of sycophantic thugs (which reminds me of Stalin, too.) The climax is savage. And the ghostly ending is chilling in its lack of resolution.

The second movement is sarcastic to the point of mirthless. Boorish basses clumsily waltz through the opening melody only to be mocked with nasal squeals of derision by the high woodwind. It is like a cartoon circus with plump peasants, toothless old men, gypsies, soldiers, a pretty ballerina, vulgar adolescents. It is far from graceful. It is an inelegant parade. It is stubborn and pigheaded and more than a little ornery.

The third movement is the soul of the symphony. It is a wordless requiem (prayer for the dead.) The tone of private despair and that 3-note motif from the first movement become central points of focus. The 3-notes, which have come in myriad forms including resignation, frustration, defiance, now seem to beg and scream and sob. They are terrified cries in the night. Individual instruments step forth from the orchestra to give their tragic testimony, as if they are telling about midnight disappearances of loved ones and friends, and forced labor in Siberian gulags, and political purges. And the 'heavy artillery' of the brass and percussion are forced to sit in mute silence and bear witness. After a harrowing movement, the last gesture seems to be a cathartic murmur of ‘Amen’ from the entire string section.

Now, in order for the symphony to rehabilitate Shostakovich the way it needed to, the Finale needed to be upbeat, heroic and victorious. So, Dmitri gives us a linked series of energetic marches, each more animated than the last.

But for me, the Finale is something quite different. For me, I hear a lynch mob out for blood.

I hear a relentless hunt. We are being chased and have to run for our very lives, farther and faster, to avoid almost certain capture. Alarms and sirens and gunfire seem to whirl about our head in our desperate escape. Our freedom seems imminent and then catastrophe strikes: a dead-end. And then, in our darkest hour, as we cast our mind back to the friends we’ve lost, feeling sure that we will now go the same way they did, unexpectedly, a light of redemption seems to shine weakly through the gloom. It is at this point, of course, that the ominous pursuit slowly and quietly threatens once again off in the distance.

As it approaches closer and becomes increasingly menacing, this sinister version of the chase theme is – with great effort – transformed. It does indeed become heroic and triumphant, and the victory that once seemed impossible is now here, at last. 

Or is it…

Cracking the Code

The ending of the finale has been the subject of intense debate since its premiere. Everyone in the audience intuitively understood what it meant. They stood in an ovation that lasted an hour. They wept openly. They stamped their feet. This is because the symphony gave voice to a feeling they were not allowed to utter. It was just a bunch of notes with no explicit meaning, and so neither Shostakovich nor the crowd could be accused of anything.

The 'victorious' brass chorale at the end is accompanied by half the orchestra repeating the same note over, and over, and over, and over, and over. And over. And over. For, like, 60 seconds. To the point where it loses all meaning. Or, rather, takes on a completely different meaning. (Try repeating the word 'fun' for 60 seconds and notice what happens...)

One interpretation is that the endlessly repeated note is like someone beating you with a truncheon and screaming, ‘Your business is rejoicing! Your business is rejoicing!’ And you get up shakily and walk away muttering to yourself, ‘My business is rejoicing. My business is rejoicing.’ Or maybe the music is really just super psyched about #winning.

It is also possible that some people simply didn’t want to think of Shostakovich as being  intimidated into submission. They don’t want to think of him as Winston at the end of 1984, sitting in the café after his conversion therapy, idly writing in the dust on the table 2 + 2 = 5.

So what does it really mean? You decide.

Watch a performance now. 

Kirsten Hicks