Of all the works by Shostakovich, this was the first I heard. I think I made a recording from the radio, and then listened to it a couple of times in succession. This kind of music was new to me. At the same time sensitive and coarsely funny to the point of being vulgar.
The fifth symphony premiered in 1937 in Leningrad, and was at the time recorded as well. It was an immediate success. In the days before the premiere, someone, supposedly the composer himself, wrote in a Moscow newspaper that it the symphony was ‘an artist’s response to justified criticism’. The composer was denounced just one year before, by the communist party. This symphony was his comeback.
As a result it is viewed much later as a piece of Soviet propaganda. It might contain secret messages and jokes the party didn’t pick up or understand, sure, but it also meant that Immaculate Art had been destroyed for Political Propaganda. It didn’t stop this work from being the most popular of Shostakovich’s symphonies.