Week 125: “Symphony #5, Third Movement” by Dmitry Shostakovich

I would love to tell you that I discovered this piece because I was researching Shostakovich’s life. I would love to say that I was curious about the rumour that some of his music, composed during Stalin’s reign of terror, contained secretly coded anti-government sentiment. Or that I knew that many of Shostakovich’s friends and relatives were imprisoned and killed in the years before he wrote his fifth symphony, and I was wondering if it contained any anti-Stalin messages, so I studied it intensely for months in a University library.

Unfortunately, the real story of how I found out about this piece is far less intellectual: I was browsing a cardboard box filled with records at a garage sale. I saw the soundtrack to a sci-fi movie I’d never heard of and thought it looked cool, so I bought it for $1.50.

The movie, it turned out, was “Rollerball”. I watched it, and it’s awesome in the way that only 1970s sci-fi can be awesome. In the future, apparently, everyone will be dressed entirely in brown and orange, and computers will be small enough to fit in a single room. But at least we’ll listen to good music; Andre Previn did some great arrangements of classical pieces for the soundtrack, including this one. The movie, along with its soundtrack, was released in 1975. (Funnily enough, the year after Shostakovich died.)

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The strings are amazing. They soar and pulse and roll and sing and fade.

2. From the midst of all the soaring and pulsing, the harp and flutes poke their heads out at 3:32.

3. It’s unpredictable, but still melodic. A lot of 20th-century composers tried to veer away from the conventional patterns of earlier music. I like that Shostakovich’s music does that without being too atonal.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching figure skating with the volume on mute.

Buy it here.