This Is Not a Review of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony

On learning to fail

Instead, it is me trying to remember the beginning, sitting here with the lights turned low and the clicking hum of my ceiling fan, trying to remember. For Dr. Culver it had been like quoting Shakespeare or the Bible. Standing in the carpeted lobby at Symphony Hall in Chicago, we asked him something about the Shostakovich Cello Concerto. “Oh sure!” he exclaimed and vigorously hummed the opening bars in perfect tune. Even under such a shower of saliva we were dumbstruck. After that we tried to stump him, with names like Hindemith and Piston, but it never worked. It was as if a full symphony orchestra had taken up residence in his head, on a moment’s call. I, on the other hand, am forced to settle for the compact disc. The New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting; recorded live at Bunka Kaikan, Tokyo, 1979. I press play and I can hear it now, I can finally remember now. It begins as good symphonies do — quietly — and as all Shostakovich symphonies do — darkly. Moderato. D-minor. It begins with an anapest, or nearly an anapest — one short, then long — referring to Beethoven’s Fifth. And there is a low conversation among the strings: first the cellos, then the violins, in hushed tones. They are huddled in the back shadows, whispering over shoulders, periodically working themselves to a nervous pitch, the violins suddenly screaming — then just as suddenly cut off. The temperatures here are sub-zero, we are shivering, and there are these silences everywhere. Held breaths. Pianissimo. These are the moments most difficult for musicians to master because they are where the fear inhabits. The fear that causes us to play and to listen and to write and to read in the first place. And it is inside of these silences that I am able to sit once again on the cold tile of a second-floor classroom-turned-dressing-room. It is Variety Show my sophomore year in high school. I am dressed in a wretched black polyester tuxedo and next to me is Heather listening to her headphones again. She also plays violin and has bright, curly red hair. She looks a bit like a Raggedy Ann doll. I suspect that she is a smoker, partly because her dad is an artist. They sometimes give me rides home from Youth Symphony on Saturdays, driving across town in congested traffic, listening to the radio. They were surprised when I had not even heard of a group like R.E.M., and I can’t help it if I don’t understand why her father, even if he does paint, knows about music. This makes no sense to me. Now she asks me to put on the headphones because she has recorded this Shostakovich symphony off the radio. “Who is Shostakovich?” I ask, and she tells me that they played Symphony №5 in Youth Symphony last year, except that I hadn’t been in Youth Symphony last year. I listen and at first I hate it. I feel like I am listening to a skeleton. The bass tiptoes across the score while the woodwinds very carefully repeat the theme back, note for note. There is no room for error here, comrades. It is so quiet I can hear the audience shifting in their seats. I borrow the tape from Heather, take it home to my room in the basement, and listen to it again and again, playing it loudly, as if it were rock music. I do not understand that this is something Heather and I now share. Perhaps if I do I should fall in love with her as she has fallen in love with me, always referring to me in those melodramatic notes we pass as “dear friend.” After all, Shostakovich is no small thing to have in common. Many years later I would check out his memoir from the library and look at pictures of him. Dmitri Dmitryevich. He was small, wiry, with round, black-rimmed glasses, thin, bloodless lips, and streaks of black hair pasted across his head. He wrote about receiving two scathing reviews in Pravda in 1936 — reviews he attributed to Comrade Stalin himself — and the terrible, throat-catching fear that he had endured. The subjects of such reviews routinely disappeared. But he did not, an even more terrible fate, he surmised, for it only doubled, or maybe tripled, his fearfulness. This is how it was in Soviet Russia, he wrote. But in 1937 he triumphed with his Fifth Symphony. A Soviet artist’s response to just criticism is how he subtitled the work. Others have called it a complete capitulation. After the great pessimism of the first movement, the finale rejoices. “The rejoicing is forced,” Shostakovich wrote in his memoir, “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’…” For this reason, some see Shostakovich as a yurodivy, a “holy fool,” a jester. He is mocking us with this symphony. The audience at its premiere is said to have wept. And I do not care about his finale, anyway. I’m playing my tape so loud my mom is forced to ask me to turn it down (against her better judgment, it would seem, “because at least the boy is listening to something decent down there”), but I hear only the Moderato, the first movement. I hear its emptiness and its doubts. It is so melancholy, but not in a wistful way, not in a nostalgic way; rather, it is irascible, delusional, and manic depressive, characterized by furious outbursts from the brass sections followed abruptly by soothing chords from the violins. For me, it is lonely and full of omens. It is full of who I felt I was in high school. I did not learn to love Symphony №5 or ever understand it on a technical level. I press PLAY and I am listening to my mirror. I am sitting in the poorly lit high school cafeteria, late one evening after school, where we are practicing our string quartet. We are struggling with the Allegro finale of Shostakovich’s String Quartet №1 in C. This time I am playing viola (“only different from a violin,” Dr. Culver says, “because it burns longer”); in fact, this is the first piece I have ever played on viola. It is frantic and utterly overwhelming, but we are assured that it is “a little Symphony №5,” written just one year later, in 1938, and this is why we agree to learn it. I have trouble concentrating, though, because I am desperately in love with Michele, the first violin, and I know that she doesn’t love me, but instead a boy she affectionately calls “shithead.” (Wagnerian tragedy, this. I am turned black inside, so that Heather writes me a note saying that I am letting my feelings “slowly destroy” me.) And I can’t stop thinking about how this scene is so perfect: the four of us in the shadowy, abandoned cafeteria, our music echoing off the walls and plastic chairs. This is something I should write about, a Danse Macabre, describing the notes leaping off the pages and sliding down the stands. They fence on the salad bar, joust by the pop machine, and kiss under the skylight, before roving off to commit unthinkable acts of double-deed. My story unravels in rapturous and sinister fashion, plagued with doubt and unbearable emotion. I want to net Shostakovich with my words; I desperately want to decode and communicate the many colors, textures, and timbres his music realizes inside of me. Of course, such stories remain unwritten because I am too afraid to fail, because failure is inevitable, and I cannot bear it after failing on my instruments, failing to live up to my desires. This is the incidental music of my life. Several years later the four of us are together again, this time playing a wedding reception in a Knights of Columbus banquet hall. We wait until everyone is good and drunk and then we pull out String Quartet №1. We shock them, just like we wanted to, and amuse them, because this is our incidental music and not theirs. When I do finally ask Michele to the prom — we’re on the phone and I have the script of my question written out in front of me — she answers she’s not sure if she’ll be in town that weekend but she’ll let me know. She’ll call me. And already I can hear the timpani roll of betrayal. I later learn she played Shostakovich that night, a quartet gig I turned down. Now I wish that this is something that Michele and I do not share, I want to turn back the clock on Shostakovich, because how can she understand what it means to me? The violins are increasingly insistent with the second theme, they strike their octaves impatiently, until finally they settle down into a peaceful, almost beautiful, interlude. But a wind picks up, first in the violas, then the flute, punctuated by a pounding piano, swirling through the orchestra, picked up by the brass, and the martial announcements of the snare, a screaming crescendo. Fortissimo. And then it is gone. It is cold and it is quiet. I am sweating and shivering. This is my first semester at college and I have not played my viola since the previous spring when we performed Vivaldi’s Requiem for a church gig. One of my string pegs had broken, swelled up in the heat and humidity, then snapped in two. The string remained tightly wound, though, and during the performance I was forced to adjust the intonation with a pair of pliers we had retrieved from Michele’s truck. Now only recently has it been repaired and I am standing unsteadily in a tiny cubicle somewhere inside the music building. This year, for its first concert, the university orchestra shall perform Shostakovich’s Symphony №5 in D-minor, Op. 47, and I intend to be a part of it. Before me sit James Dixon, legendary conductor and friend of Leonard Bernstein, and William Preucil, director of violas. I begin to play my Schubert and am almost immediately cut off by a simple wave of Dixon’s hand. The verdict back so soon? “Brevity,” Dr. Culver, bearded and sage, so oft announced, “is the handmaiden of concision.” I bring my viola down from my chin and my hands sweat so that I think I might drop it. “What, Mr. Wolfe, did you say your major was?” Dixon asks. Clearing my throat: “English.” “Yes, yes, yes … We do have plenty of viola majors this year, do we not, Mr. Preucil?” In this rather unremarkable way, my career as a musician ends. The fortissimo has disappeared. The strings are muted now, con sordino, and we have found our interlude again. The violas and cellos are all the heartbeat we have, barely pulsing, while the flute solos, then the piccolo, the oboe, then the clarinet, the violas and the cellos are barely pulsing. There is not any more shivering, the air is too icy, and out of the highest register sounds the solo violin, with only the smallest touch of vibrato, fading on a high F. The last three and a half beats of the first movement are silent. And the music is marked morendo.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Healing: 20 Prominent Authors Write About Inspirational Moments of Gaining Health, edited by Lee Gutkind (Penguin/Tarcher)

Author of Finding Bix (2017), Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope (2017), and Wolfe’s History (2019). Iowan in Virginia.