We are all influenced by our first exposures to greatness. Whether it is a person, structure or work of art, those initial contacts inform us for the rest of our lives. But, once in a while, we are forced to look at those elements in a different way, and sometimes the result can be dramatically different from our original thoughts.

These days, in addition to my conducting activities as well as writing both music and prose, I am engaged in what I hope will be a valuable project for anyone interested in the methodology involved when conducting the masterworks of the orchestral literature. Among the pieces that I examine is the Fifth Symphony by Shostakovich. The essays are not supposed to be about speculation but rather a practical guide as to how these works should be studied and led.

But sometimes it was impossible to avoid certain issues surrounding particular passages and occasionally a whole work. Readers of Classical Source and Colin’s Column will not need me to tell them of the history behind this specific symphony. However, for the purposes of what I am about to write, we have to throw out the millions of words written regarding ideology and politics.

Perhaps the single most controversial tempo in all music centers on the last pages of the Russian master’s work. In tonight’s concert with the Manhattan School of Music Orchestra, I give a little demonstration of how the coda has unfolded over the years. To do this, it was necessary to see, as always, what the composer wrote. What we find is that the last section has a metronome mark of crochet (quarter note) equals 188. This means that there are that number of beats over the course of one minute.

But all you have to do is listen or watch any recording made by the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, who gave the world premiere of the work, to see that he hardly follows this instruction. It is a slow, almost dignified approach, one that he would maintain throughout his career. Although the piece was given its first performance in 1937, it took a few years to commit to disc, even though the work was immediately popular and became standard repertoire all over the world. He can be seen conducting in four but quite contrary to the indicated marking.

Only a few years later, for reasons that are unclear, most conductors during the 1950s, including Eugene Ormandy, one of the composer’s strongest advocates, found them taking this ending with the minim (half note) equaling around 72 or so. So not only had the tempo changed, but this portion was also now conducted with two beats to the bar as opposed to four.

Enter Leonard Bernstein, who took the work to Russia on a tour with the New York Philharmonic in 1958. With the composer present, he dashed off the coda with the minim at around 104 and even faster in some performances. And Shostakovich was beaming, praising the performance. It appears that he liked the way everyone did his music. Conductors have varied over the ensuing years, between the three tempos cited, with Rostropovich leading the way on the slower end of speed.

Why has there been so much difference and is there a real truth out there?

As mentioned, I am not going to go to the social or political reasons, which may or may not have anything to do with this. Instead, I am going to place the blame, as some others have suggested, on the publisher. But mine is not the usual criticism.

As mentioned, the marking that was passed down was that the crochet equaled 188. Not only was this ridiculously fast, but it is also almost impossible to move your arms at this speed. The argument is that it was misread and should have the quaver (eighth note) at this tempo. That really doesn’t make sense either, at least for conducting purposes, but it would place the crochet at 96, which is reasonable but still quite a bit faster than Mravinsky.

Bernstein must have also thought it was a misprint, but he went the other way and thought that the half note was the indication intended, not the quarter. Coupling that with halving the 188 marking, one can see how he came up with his then, and still now, radical solution. Half note is at least 96 in this way of thinking.

I have another thought. What if the misprint was that the number 1 before the 88 was the culprit? If we eliminate that, then we have the crochet at the two digits, not three, which is certainly logical. It places the tempo much closer to Mravinsky and still allows Bernstein his belief that there is a second error with the note value.

Can it really be that simple? A mistake on the part of the publisher, consisting of an added digit?

Yes. And it still affords others the opportunity to come up with their own solutions.

When it is all said and done, however, there is only one thing we need to know. The piece is called Symphony No.5, period.

Tonight, Feb 10, MSM webcast:

Fedoseyev’s solution:

How to best end Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony?