Political and artistic pressures coincided many times inthe course of Shostakovich’s career, but never more than in the year 1937, when the Fifth Symphony was composed. Early in 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the ballet The Limpid Stream had been officially condemned, and in consequence he felt obliged to withdraw his Fourth Symphony before its scheduled premiere. These works, which are full of a wayward, dissonant genius, made no concession to the official doctrine of Socialist Realism, and the bleak endings of both Opera and Symphony directly contradicted the optimism then expected from Soviet artists.
The crisis he faced was far more than a question of musical style, it was quite literally a matter of life or death. By 1936 the mechanism of Stalin’s Great Terror was lurching into motion, with show trials, denunciations and disappearances. Few Russians remained untouched, particularly in the composer’s own city of Leningrad. Shostakovich himself lost relatives, friends and colleagues. A particularly serious blow was the arrest and execution in June 1937 of his highly-placed protector Marshal Tukhachevsky; association with such an ’enemy of the people’ put Shostakovich in a highly dangerous position.