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

Warming Up

There is an unusual excited tension in 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.

TS S. Fulk

3 Questions for the author

What was your process for creating this work?

For “Playing Shostakovich …” it was an ekphrastic process. First I researched Shostakovich and his artistic struggles with the communist regime. Then I played the symphony movement by movement over and over. First to get some inspiration and later to write the sonnet for each movement. I tried to tie the emotions and visualizations conjured by the movement with bits of historical research — all seen through the perspective of a bass trombonist. Later I added the free-verse sections “Warming up” and “Applause” including bits from my actual experience of playing the piece several years ago (which I consider one the highlights of my amateur orchestral career). In the end, it became four sonnets sandwiched between two free-verse sections.

“Two Sonnets Smothered with Marmalade” was a more straight forward, linear “write the poem as it comes” process. Both required extensive rewriting until I felt satisfied. 

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?

My sonnets are also a hybrid of western sonnets and haiku-like forms. They contain an octave, a sestet (in either order) and a volta couplet. I usually pair the octave with 8-syllable lines and the sestet with six-syllable lines (sometimes I mix that) and the couplet always has one 8-syllable line and one 6-syllable line usually in the same order as the stanzas. This gives me more freedom to have the rhythm I want while still having some constraints on word choice.

For “Playing Shostakovich …” I wanted to have a form that would match the grandness of the symphonic form. So I decided to have one sonnet for each movement. Having the free-verse sections before and after allowed me to introduce and contemplate the symphony as a whole, not just as individual movements. 

When I wrote “Two Sonnets Smothered with Marmalade,” I was just starting to experiment with mixing formal poetry with free verse. 

What is the significance of this work to you?

“Playing Shostakovich …”: I wanted to write a poem to honor a composer whose works mean a great deal to me, and I’ve always been intrigued by his struggles as an artist in a country that repressed artistic freedom. 

“Two Sonnets Smothered in Marmalade”: I wanted to explore my own thoughts and emotions of a line from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives” — “We're each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?” So the poem contemplates the fear of reaching out into the dark despite our inherent loneliness.

TS S. Fulk lives with his family in Örebro, Sweden as an English teacher and textbook author. After getting an M.A. in English literature from the University of Toronto, he taught English in Prague, CZ before settling down in Sweden. Besides teaching and writing, TS S. Fulk is an active musician playing bass trombone, the Appalachian mountain dulcimer and the Swedish bumblebee dulcimer (hummel). His poetry has been (or will be) published  by numerous presses including The Ekphrastic Review, The Button Eye Review, Red Ogre Review, Perennial Press, Lovecraftiana and Between These Shores.

Next (Two Sonnets Smothered with Marmalade) >

< Back (Why I Collect Netsukes)