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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905"
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on September 25, 1906 and died in Moscow, Russia on August 9, 1975. Shostakovich composed the Eleventh Symphony in 1957. Natan Rakhlin conducted the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in the première, in Moscow on October 30 of that year. It runs approximately 65 minutes in performance and is scored for piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, celeste, and orchestral strings.
Shostakovich composed his Tenth Symphony in 1953, shortly after the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In it, he gave voice to the suffering his country had undergone at Stalin’s hands, and the rage he felt about it. It provoked considerable controversy for its often harsh tone, but its eventual acceptance helped spark a thaw in the repression that Soviet artists had endured while Stalin lived.
Two years later Shostakovich announced that his next symphony would depict the events of 1905, when a first, unsuccessful Russian revolution had taken place. Numerous diversions meant that work on it was delayed until 1957. He completed it in time for it to honour the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the one that finally ended the 300-year reign of the imperial Romanov dynasty. Outwardly, its creation satisfied the cultural bureaucrats’ directive for straightforward, uplifting music that celebrated the history and policies of the Soviet communist government. They awarded it a Lenin Prize.
Yet quite a different set of meanings may be drawn from it, one that runs boldly counter to official dogma. Its thematic materials include nine revolutionary and prison songs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of them familiar to 1950s Soviet audiences. This practice, too, would seem to reflect official policy, until it is recognized that many of their texts (unheard in this symphonic context) strongly condemn the actions of dictators. Also, Shostakovich composed the symphony just one year after the brutal Soviet suppression of a political uprising in Hungary. It may represent his revulsion toward that event, or a condemnation of intolerance and repression in general.
Some listeners criticized him for caving in to bureaucratic pressure, but many of his friends understood the symphony’s hidden agenda, and congratulated him for once again giving voice to the loathing they all felt toward their country’s politics. Musicologist Lev Lebedinsky wrote, “This was so clear to those ‘who have ears to listen’ that his son, with whom he wasn’t in the habit of sharing his deepest thoughts, whispered to his father during the dress rehearsal, ‘Papa, what if they hang you for this?’…The Eleventh Symphony is a truly contemporary work, camouflaged by necessity with a historic programme.”
The four movements flow into each other without pause and are linked by recurrence of thematic materials. The first two relate directly to events that took place in the vast square in front of Tsar Nicholas II’s winter place in St. Petersburg on January 9, 1905. A crowd of 150,000 unarmed workers and their families gathered there to petition peacefully for relief from their poverty.
The first movement, The Palace Square, with its glacial strings, echoing brass fanfares and murmuring drums, sets the scene in ominous fashion. Quiet yet violent stirrings in the low strings usher in the second movement. Entitled The Ninth of January, it recreates in graphic, virtually cinematic fashion first the assembling of the crowd, then the horror and panic that broke out when the Tsar’s soldiers fired on them. As many as a thousand people were killed or wounded in the massacre. After a tempestuous climax, the eerie quiet in which the symphony began returns, with heightened intensity. This “Bloody Sunday” incident proved a turning point in Russian history, when the people realized that the uncaring, autocratic reign of the Tsars must come to an end. Twelve years later, it did.
The remaining movements present more generalized impressions. Plucked notes in the lower strings usher in the third movement, In Memoriam. The violas introduce You Fell as Heroes, a song that was written in tribute to the victims of the massacre shortly after it took place. Shostakovich adopts it as the main theme of this sombre, eloquent funeral march. A forceful sense of outrage sustains its lengthy central climax. Shostakovich launches the finale, Tocsin (Alarm Bell), abruptly and with great vigour. Its primary emotion is defiance—against, it seems, all who would inflict suffering on common folk. Before the galloping, bell-tolling conclusion, the symphony’s bleak opening music makes a final appearance, perhaps as a warning to remain vigilant against the rebirth of evil forces.
Programme Note by Don Anderson
© Copyright 2013 Toronto Symphony Orchestra