Playing Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a Bass Trombonist’s Perspective

by TS S. Fulk

Warming Up

There is an unusual excited tension the air, even though the tuba player is cracking jokes with the tenors and me, as if this was just any afternoon concert. Yet behind the laughter, a cool professionalism mans our psyches as we focus for the task at hand —to do justice to the survivor of the great purge, Shostakovich and his Fifth Symphony. The door to the green room opens, and we, like tuxedoed black ants, file out to our seats. The audience in the concert hall reacts to the tension with acute anticipation. We tune and wait, eyes on the baton as it rises. It is time.

First Movement — Moderato

Life vacillating  

between string-sweet calmness

pregnant with the threat from 

the sudden synchronized 

ponderous power of 

tuba and bass trombone.

I wonder if symphonies can

be autobiographical.

Still periods of harmony

are interrupted by chaos,

the threat of censor, and the purge

that destroyed or banished thousands.

Discord and respite alternate

as in Shostakovich’s life.

Must I revel playing

bass trombone as the party’s sword?

Second Movement — Allegretto

Concessions to conform

are a constant in life.

Why would Shostakovich 

be any different?

Or is this ironic

patriotic whimsy?

The hero and the symphony

parade unashamedly dressed 

in socialistic uniforms

seeking approval from Stalin.

How can we portray the tightrope

the symphony dances upon?

How should I nuance the timbre 

vibrating from my soul and horn?

I feel that bass trombone

is Dmitri’s ironic voice.

Third Movement —Largo 

Children of the cold war

had restless nights and dreamed

apocalyptic dreams.

Those dread-filled nightmares were

my chance to empathize 

with those in the Great Purge.

The heavy fustiness clinging,

like rain droplets on a petal,

to the atmosphere of his time

percolated a bitter brew.

Conform to the majority

risk compunction and contrition.

Explore the unknown of genius 

risk denouncement, detainment, death

Tacet trombones regard

greatness achieved by mixing both.

Fourth Movement —Allegro non troppo 

The hero has returned.

Cacophonous fanfare

implies internal strife.

The true antagonist

for a great composer —

desire for acceptance.

Thundering triumphs are replaced

with solemn, string-lead melodies

that reflect a tense harmonic

requiring resolution.

Neither defeat nor victory

emerge from the chord progressions.

Instead the hero has claimed both,

a disentangled dissonance.  

The struggle does not end

but lives on to be played again.


Like a heavy late August rain, plump particles of applause and cheers descend and splash upon us. As if sensing the simile, large beads of sweat drip down my forehead. Their saltiness burns my eyes, while I stand proudly holding my bass trombone at attention in front of me, looking out into the sea of faces.  Both audience and the performers celebrate a masterwork written as a reaction to Stalin’s disapproval of earlier works, yet neither can comprehend such greatness, such genius. We can only try to fulfill the artist’s response to “just” criticism.