As you may already know, anger is not only an emotion but it is part of the grieving process. According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief:
I believe much of the grief Dimitri Shostakovich experienced during the oppression of Joseph Stalin is expressed in anger. Much of his art was suppressed and many of his countrymen were imprisoned and murdered. What Shostakovich did not have the freedom to express with words, he wrote into his music.
Bitter anger is the only emotion I can take away when listening to today’s clip from Symphony No. 5, Mvt 1. The piano, horns and trumpets are playing in their lowest range. It is not common to hear a piano solo that is this low because it would not project over the orchestra in a normal context. But Shostakovich removes the rest of the orchestra so the piano accompaniment is crystal clear. When the horns enter, they sound like trombones at first. Most people don’t realize that the horn has the widest range of any brass instrument. They can play as low or lower than a tuba and higher than most trumpets, with little effort. Of course, in this register the horn sounds raspy and mean. Perfect for this emotional context. The same is true for the trumpets in this clip. Even through it is members of the New York Philharmonic playing, their tone here is intentionally ugly.
Michael Tilson Thomas has a great commentary of this melody on Keeping Score. He says that the fourth note of the melody (listen again if you need to) is irregular. It doesn’t fit the key, which means we can label it a dissonant note. Because it is one half-step lower than we expect it to be, it pushes our buttons as listeners. Also, if you were to look at the notes of this melody on the page, they form the shape of a valley. The notes go down in the first half of the melody, and just when it doesn’t seem they can go any lower, Shostakovich takes them one step lower than that before coming back up. The lowest note in the melody is also the lowest note a trumpet can play, an F-sharp. Interesting the that the grief chart is also in the shape of a valley.
Symphony No. 5 is Shostakovich’s most famous piece. It is filled with interesting moments like these. Be sure to listen to the whole symphony if you get a chance.