Now that a power-centralizing, criticism-averse leader is again ruling Russia, and Cold War-related feelings are spreading deja vu all over the place, there's fresh value in re-hearing the story behind Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5.
That story will be told this weekend in "Shostakovich: Notes for Stalin," presented by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director Marin Alsop.
This is the latest "Symphonic Play" created by Didi Balle, the BSO's first playwright in residence. In recent years, the orchestra has commissioned and premiered Balle's "CSI: Mozart," "CSI: Beethoven," "A Composer Fit for a King: Wagner & Ludwig II," and "Analyze This: Mahler & Freud."
Not surprisingly, other organizations have taken note of Balle's efforts in this specialized field. It was the Philadelphia Orchestra that first approached her about writing a Shostakovich play, which that ensemble premiered in 2013.
"When they told me that Shostakovich allegedly wrote the Fifth Symphony with a packed suitcase under his bed, I told them, 'Tell me more. I'm on board,'" Balle says.
Balle dug into the history of the composer and his precarious situation in mid-1930s Soviet Union, where he went from a darling of the state to a pariah, then moved back into favor after composing his Fifth Symphony.
In 1934, Shostakovich's searing opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District," about a morality-challenged woman who blithely kills to get what she wants, became a popular and critical hit. One review declared that it was the work of a composer clearly "brought up in the best traditions of Soviet culture."
"Lady Macbeth" was soon produced around the world. In early 1936, Muscovites could choose among three productions running simultaneously around town. Unfortunately, one of those who decided to check out the opera was Stalin. The dictator left in a huff before the performance ended.
On Jan. 28, 1936, the official paper, Pravda, carried an unsigned, withering attack on "Lady Macbeth," peppered with such adjectives as "muddled," "dissonant," "neurotic" and "vulgar." Not too subtly, the article warned composers who might be tempted to follow such a misguided path that things could "end very badly."
Soon after, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4, written in the kind of style that had offended the authorities, was about to have its premiere.
"Two Communist Party observers came to a rehearsal, probably tipped off by someone in the orchestra," Balle says. "I think some musicians were afraid because it had so much dissonance."
Shostakovich withdrew the score to the Fourth Symphony (it wasn't performed until 1961) and worried about arrest -- with good reason. Several friends and colleagues, denounced for assorted cultural misdeeds, began to disappear.
"He couldn't trust anyone," Balle says. "A character in the play is Isaak Glikman, who became Shostakovich's personal secretary and a close friend for five decades. I think he was the one who guided Shostakovich through this. I have Glikman say to him: 'Find a way to say what you need to say beneath the surface.'"
The result was his Symphony No. 5.
It is hard not to hear a subtext in this gripping piece, even when things seem uplifting during the last movement.
"Stalin wanted finales to have heroic marches," Balle says. "Shostakovich called his finale 'a forced march of gaiety.' He was trying to find a way to balance some of what Stalin expected of him and still speak his own personal truth. Shostakovich was an avid poker player. I think he knew how to hide his hand."
The symphony's 1937 premiere in Leningrad was met with tears and cheers from an audience that seemed to understand what was behind these "notes for Stalin." The ovation lasted a half-hour.
"Some officials thought the applause itself was suspect," Balle says, "that Shostakovich set up the demonstration."
But the triumph was genuine. The multilayered Fifth Symphony continues to stir listeners to this day.