In a "keeping score" video about 5th Symphony by Shostakovich a director Michael Tilson Thomas says the following:

Instead of writing in the approved ultra-nationalist style, Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony on the model pioneered by Beethoven; he begins his symphony with a sonata, albeit with a hesitant feel.

If I understand this correctly, sonata here refers to the sonata allegro form, first part of a classic sonata where we'd get intro, 1st/2nd theme exposition, progression, repetition of 1st/2nd theme and then a coda. Indeed, this structure kinda fits the 1st movement of the 5th by Shostakovich, with perhaps a superlong coda.

What I'm interested in though: what was this approved ultra-nationalist style? Perhaps there are some other symphonies that provide an example of such style which apparently should differ from the classical sonata one.

  • For examples of much more nationalistic works that prioritize programmatic considerations over musical form, listen to (and read about) Shostakovich's 11th Symphony and 12th Symphony. Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 3:50
  • @MichaelSeifert thanks! those were composed after Stalin's death, whereas Thomas was specifically talking about early Stalin times. This makes sense, given that 20s in USSR were avangardist times and 30s was the time of a (very harsh) reaction to it.
    – SBF
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 14:48

3 Answers 3


There was not a clear set of rules to define "Soviet" music. It was supposed to "glorify" the Soviet ethos, but ultimately it was up to the bureaucrat who was tasked with giving the stamp of approval.

This system (or lack of system) plagued Prokofiev, for example, who tried mightily to write "Soviet" music, but was frequently rejected for various "reasons" that ultimately amounted to a bureaucrat not liking him, his music, or both.

One consistent theme, however, was a rejection of "bourgeois" and "Western" elements: so, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, etc. The music should represent "class struggle" and glorify the proletariat. But how that was done was ultimately just the opinion of the official in charge. Beethoven was an exception, however, due to his "revolutionary" character.

  • so no particular system, you say. Btw, I thought Beethoven was the one still allowed, allegedly due to his "revolutionary" character
    – SBF
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 6:41
  • @SBF Yes, my error. The post is updated.
    – Aaron
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 6:42
  • 1
    Based on listening to other Communist music and how outwardly confident those pieces are, I actually think Shostakovich got burned fairly hard on the "hesitant" part.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 7:31
  • @Dekkadeci if he was, the press would not hesitate to write about it. From what I know, the press was praising the 5th, and also Stalin liked it.
    – SBF
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 11:00

In Soviet era (after the first years) all art form were expected to convey a political message: The suffering of the proletariat and the final victory of communism. One principle common to music especially since Beethoven is the per aspera ad astra or through darkness to light principle, which implies a resolution of dark movements in a heroic final movement. In Soviet music this obtained the meaning of ’the music first shows the struggle of the working class, until the final movement shows heroic triumph of communism‘. Soviet reception of art was of course particularly displeased by any form of critique, satire or mockery, and especially in music coined by preference to highly blunt and pathetic music (somewhat similar to Nazi Germany). Soviet music especially rejected music that was considered ’formalistic’, to the point that a bunch of composers (including Shostakovich for his 9th) were charged with formalism and banned from composing (cf. Zhdanov Doctrine).

This means that intellectual artists in Soviet era needed to be very careful with how they shaped their art in such a way that could be justified to the authorities and still allow them some amount of submerged artistic and political expression. And this means that it is very hard to interpret such works in the historic context. The symphony in question can be seen to follow the soviet demands quite well, and it was in the time perceived as a return of the young composer to patriotic music. Much later Shostakovich himself demented this in response to some criticism of his positioning during Stalin era. But this could very well also be a sort of made up justification. Who knows exactly?

But this gives a lot of space for people to inject their own readings — which is most likely what is happening here.

  • Your nickname is misleading, thanks a lot for the answer! Tchaikovskys 6th has a rather unheroic last movement. Would you say that’s an exception?
    – SBF
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 18:27
  • 1
    @SBF Note that for one thing Tchaikovsky is not a soviet composer. And yes, Tchaikovsky’s 6th is rather uncommon in it’s design.
    – Lazy
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 21:31

It might be hard to quote symphonies in the 'approved' style, because the requirement for programmatic work, replete with military and folkloric tunes, wasn't a good fit with large scale symphonic forms. "Once you've played a folk tune, there's not much left except to play it again, louder."

But Shostakovitch's "Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism" while not quite as blatantly nationalistic as a 'Má vlast' or '1812 overture' does manage to depict anguish, bucolic merriment and a triumphant resolution with quite apparent assistance from the military! I'd suggest that it IS a good example, perhaps the pre-eminent example, of a 'Soviet Symphony'.

It's always difficult to find something new to write in a programme note. Perhaps Tilson Thomas is trying a little too hard to avoid the usual opinion?

  • Makes total sense. Didn’t get the last part. Also, Tilson Thomas quote suggests he had in mind an alternative form of the first movement, in this “ultra nationalist” style. But overall from the answers I get the opinion that at least it’s not obvious what he meant, or were there indeed examples of other symphonies with such first movement.
    – SBF
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 4:50
  • About "Once you've played a folk tune, there's not much left except to play it again, louder." - the Russian/Slavic habit/stereotype I've heard is that they play it again, but with accelerando this time.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 6:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.