Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Scott Burnham

Committee Members

Joseph Straus

Jonathan Rosenberg

Anne Swartz

Subject Categories



Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, Reception history, Bildungsroman, Beethoven, Hermeneutics, Cold War America


This dissertation provides a new perspective on Shostakovich’s widely discussed Fifth Symphony by scrutinizing the formation of its Bildungsroman narrative and its transformation from a prototype of Soviet symphonism into an anti-Soviet statement. I begin by reaching back to 1930s Soviet Russia, when Soviet symphonism was formulated to comply with the official ideology of socialist realism. Building on Paul Bekker’s gemeinschaftsbildende Kraft (“community-building power”), key Soviet musicologists such as Ivan Sollertinsky advocated applying a model from the Western symphonic tradition to meet national propagandist needs. With music analysis, I show how Shostakovich’s Fifth fits into Boris Asafyev’s conception of Soviet symphonism with its Beethovenian structure and its representation of the composer’s personal maturation through a musical creative process. And I suggest that the symphony gained its Bildungsroman narrative from the conceptual framework of Soviet symphonism. Alexey Tolstoy famously described the symphony in his review as “the formation of a personality,” a musical assimilation of the literary prototype of the Bildungsroman. With its narrative of heroic spirit and its morally educational nature, the Fifth was celebrated as Shostakovich’s optimistic and compliant statement as well as an example of socialist realism.

The primary thrust of this dissertation is my discourse analysis of concert reviews written on the performances of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony by six major American orchestras between the work’s American premiere and the end of the twentieth century. With evidence from archival research, I argue that Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony re-enacted the gemeinschaftsbildende Kraft as a twentieth-century counterpart to Beethoven’s heroic symphonies and hence performed its transnational propagandist function in America. Using Wilhelm Dilthey’s theory of Verstehen as the highest form of understanding, I explain how people’s historical knowledge and their identification with the composer’s expressions of lived experience particularly contribute to the transforming reception of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony across periods and nationalities. This way of understanding participates in the complex nexus of symphonism and Beethoven’s perceived heroism, and helps translate the Bildungsroman narrative about a composer-hero for the American audience amid the war of ideologies.

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