The conditions under which Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony were so extreme that any misstep could easily have led to his arrest and death. It’s remarkable that the Russian composer was able to produce anything at all, let alone a work that would see him immortalised in concert halls around the world.


“It is difficult to imagine with what fear and trembling we lived through the Stalinist reign of terror,” Shostakovich’s friend and fellow composer Venyamin Basner recalls in Elizabeth Wilson’s biography Shostakovich: A Life Remembered . “Dmitri Dmitriyevich was in some ways broken by this terror.”

In 1937, Shostakovich was reeling from the official condemnation of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District – famously condemned as ‘muddle instead of music’ in Pravda after Stalin attended a performance – and had, in December 1936, pulled the...