The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Did anyone else hear Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and think of Donald Trump’s America as well as Stalin’s Russia? | November 21, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has to agree with a knowledgeable friend.

If you heard the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under music director John DeMain, perform the famous Symphony No. 5 in D minor — the same key as Beethoven’s Ninth — by Dmitri Shostakovich almost two weeks ago, you heard a performance that rivals or surpasses any other one, live or recorded, you’ve probably heard.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The performance was nothing short of stunning. And it was especially moving, given its timing in coming right after the presidential election in which Republicans Donald Trump and Mike Pence won an upset surprise victory over Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.


So here is what The Ear wants to know:

Was The Ear the only one who found himself thinking that the symphony proved an especially fitting, perhaps perfect, choice even though it was programmed a year ago? (You can hear the moving third movement, a lament with such pathos that people cried at its premiere, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Was The Ear the only one who identified with Shostakovich, who felt an even deeper empathy with the oppressed composer (below), who, fearing with good reason the dictator Joseph Stalin and his reign of Terror in the USSR, always kept a small suitcase packed with pajamas and a toothbrush by the front door in case the KGB secret police came knocking at 3 a.m., the usual arrest hour?

dmitri shostakovich

The symphony is dark music for dark times. And The Ear hopes he wrong when he fears that America is headed for some dark times of its own, times when various people and members of our society will live in constant fear and dread of what they might suffer?

This is not to suggest that President-elect Donald Trump can be equated to the murderous Joseph Stalin (below), or the United States in 2016 to the Soviet Union in the 1930s.


But it is to suggest that some comparisons — if not equations — might be in order.

It is to suggest there will be a constant and unsettling anxiety in the US created by a new ruling order that seems based on insults and intolerance, that excludes and condemns what it doesn’t approve of, that seeks to suppress or destroy opposition?

Like Latino and Syrian immigrants.

Like Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians.

Like African-Americans, Native Americans and other non-whites.

Like poor people.

Like liberals and progressives, dissenters and protesters .

Like LGBT people.

Like women and women’s health advocates and organizations that favor reproductive rights.

The list could go on and on.

But you get the idea.

If either as a musician or an audience member you agree – or disagree – leave a COMMENT.

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Great post. Trump is trying to rebuild the culture around himself, much like Stalin did.
    Stalin could not stand any type of criticism and the people paid a huge price for this. Artists, intellectuals and Patriots lived in a state of fear and terror on a daily basis.

    Shostakovich and other artists played the role that the free press does today. Stalin was able to censor and exact control over the creative culture in Russia. Fortunately, Trump has not been able to silence just criticism of his administration and policies that are doomed to failure.

    Shostakovich’ music the beacon of hope in times of trouble. It was created not only out of despair, but out of hope as well.


    Comment by Michael Thomas — May 27, 2017 @ 4:43 am

  2. I was in the WI State College-Eau Claire/community symphony orchestra in 1960 when we played Shostakovitch’s 5th Symphony. What a piece of work. I’ve recently read a stirring biography of him. What he endured is truly amazing. In 1972, I sat on the same stage with him @ Northwestern U. as the summer band played one of his pieces. He was receiving an honorary doctorate. Trump is obviously a cataclysmic mistake but we’ll survive, I’m sure.


    Comment by Larry Retzack — March 9, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

  3. I am a European Brit/German and have become in recent years an Ear too. I always listen to our local classical station on the radio while driving and over the years my ear has an unerring ability to distinguish between the mediocre and those special recordings.

    Last week it was Shostakovich’s 12th but not a recent recording – but from the 60’s. Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic. Like a flash of lightning my intuition said this is about Trump. Actually it was a sycophantic tongue in cheek homage to Stalin and all his ilk.
    I hope you Americans are going to finally stop your empassioned ‘Land of the Free, Home of the Brave’ stuff. Democracy and Freedom are things we are going to have to work for to win starting at the roots and not with empty, centurie’s old niceties which don’t really mean all that much. I should know being a Brit!

    I was interested to see that George Orwell’s 1984 has made the bestsellers list in the US. Let’s hope that Dmitri gets what he surely deserves – more radio time etc…..He might even become fashionable which I’m sure he would have loved – check out his Tea for Two

    Wishing everybody the best
    Robert Payne / Wuppertal.


    Comment by robert payne — February 6, 2017 @ 1:56 pm

  4. I agree with every word you said. As an audience member, I was actually crying during part of that magnificent performance.


    Comment by Jane Pizer — November 22, 2016 @ 8:38 pm

  5. It was brilliantly done, but I felt the same sense of unease and dread that I’d felt on election night and into the following days.


    Comment by Barb — November 21, 2016 @ 5:16 pm

  6. Gwen Evans, if you just want to insult people who disagree and not back up the accusations, then all I have to say is you failed to do any critical thinking during the campaign and got bamboozled by fear-mongers.


    Comment by Leela — November 21, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

  7. It was a shattering performance, and especially so with current political and social events in mind. I guess reader Leela had her fingers in her ears during the campaign and also read carelessly. Jacob, you did not equate Trump to Stalin, just the anxiety and fear he has created.


    Comment by Gwen Evans — November 21, 2016 @ 11:32 am

  8. Wisconsin voted for Trump, so do you believe half the people around you are evil? You are insulting your own readers (who, by the way, are reading for music, not politics). I would rather not see abusive commentary and irrational fear-mongering on this mailing list. And if you want to make an accusation, then at least back it up. What do you think Trump will do to minorities that is in any way comparable to Stalin?


    Comment by Leela — November 21, 2016 @ 10:55 am

  9. Very much agree.


    Comment by Charlotte Woods — November 21, 2016 @ 10:27 am

  10. I loved the piece last week and have loved it for over half a century. To me it represents acute suffering but also compassion and resistance.


    Comment by Ronnie Hess — November 21, 2016 @ 10:20 am

  11. The greater part of Shostakovich’s work always has this effect on me. Right now, I’m hearing the 8th string quartet in my head. Living in Dane County, we are able to shake our heads in disgust and dismay without feeling threatened, but it’s not that way in much of America. I have LGBT and black friends around the country, and I’m going to be worrying about them every single day. God have mercy on us.


    Comment by slfiore — November 21, 2016 @ 8:59 am

  12. I think it was the best work I’ve heard from MSO. Nuanced, passionate….and so timely!


    Comment by Eva Wright — November 21, 2016 @ 8:31 am

  13. For me, the most important present-day issue is Climate Change. When the USA elected Donald Trump, it has announced to the rest of the world that we are an Evil Empire, because of our unilateral denial and/or trivialization of the reality of Climate Change in the face of eventual mass extinction. Under those circumstances, acute anxiety and depression are natural and justifiable responses — as in Stalin’s 1937.


    Comment by Tim Adrianson — November 21, 2016 @ 7:40 am

  14. These are very dark and scary times for the US and for the world, and this beautiful piece of music speaks to my fears.


    Comment by Nancy — November 21, 2016 @ 7:16 am

  15. I was there and the performance was brilliant and timely. I had the same thoughts.


    Comment by Deb — November 21, 2016 @ 6:51 am

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