Symphony No.11

It was 1957, the year of the 40th  anniversary of the October Revolution. The tradition was for all famous Soviet artists to respond with eulogistic works for the anniversary. Shostakovich composed his new Opus 103, Symphony No. 11 in G minor, but rather than extolling the ‘Great October’, he entitled it 1905. He turned to the themes that had always preoccupied him – personality and power, freedom and terror, man and anti-human forces. The year before, in 1956, the XX Party Congress of the CPSU had condemned Stalin’s crimes and the cult of his personality; the expectations were for the dreamed-of change. But in the autumn, Soviet troops brought “order” to the Hungarian revolutionary events… According to some researchers and Shostakovich’s wife Irina, this was another occasion for the artist to recall the unlearned lessons of history

In his memoirs, Testimony (recorded by Solomon Volkov), the composer shared, Our family had liberal views. And a clear understanding of what was good and what was bad. The revolution of 1905 was constantly discussed. I was born a year after it, but the stories deeply touched my imagination. Later I read a lot about everything that happened. I think it was a turning point – people stopped believing the Tsar. That’s how the Russian people are: they keep believing and believing, and suddenly they stop. And when the people stop believing, that ends badly. But much blood must be shed. In 1905 they transported out on sledges droves of murdered children. The kiddies had climbed trees to watch the soldiers, and the soldiers shot at them – just for fun. Then they loaded them onto the sledges. And the dead children smiled. They died so unexpectedly that they failed to get scared. One boy they pierced with bayonets. When they took him away, people shouted that they had to grab the gun. No one wanted to hear them, but their patience ran out. I think there are many repetitions in Russian history. Not entirely accurate, of course. People in many cases think and act alike. I wanted to show this repetition in the XI Symphony. Although it is called “1905”, it addresses contemporary themes. It’s about people who stopped believing because the cup of evil had overflowed.

Shostakovich’s work on the symphony employs techniques from film montage, with plenty of themes and quotations from popular revolutionary songs, as well as two themes from his cycle Ten Poems Based on Poems by Revolutionary Poets. On the one hand, they illustrate the events, and on the other, they turn the music into an intelligible narrative, opening up space for personal retelling as well. Together with Rosenblatt’s Ukrainian Rhapsody and Lutosławski ‘s Variations on a Theme by Paganini, this creative device shows three different forms of masterful intertextual interaction.

Shostakovich initially hesitated to give programmatic titles to the symphony’s four movements, which flow continuously, but decided to guide the listener anyway. The first movement, Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (‘Palace Square’), is striking for its cool staticism – the picture of the gloomy Winter Palace, symbol of the Tsar’s autocracy, in the sonorous looming silence of dawn. In the dramaturgy of the cycle there is the sense of a prologue. In the ominous war signals of distant trumpets and the monotonous rhythm of timpani, the melodies of the songs Arrestante and Listen are embedded. Well known to the prisoners who are trying to come to terms with the slow time that passes between four walls.

The second and longest movement, January the Ninth, is the symphony’s operatic centerpiece.  It references the events of Bloody Sunday that took place at the Winter Palace. A peaceful delegation of protesters demanding an eight-hour day and amnesty for political prisoners was on its way to deliver a petition , signed by nearly 135,000 people,personally to Nicholas II.  The Tsar is out of St. Petersburg, but he has ordered the soldiers to fire on the rioters. The main theme of this part is the song Eh, Thou Tsar Our Father. The music conveys visually the whole picture of the murmuring multitudinous people drowned in a bloody Pogrom. Another theme also appears in the dramatic scene of the shooting – “Hats off”. The frenzied orgy of death ends in silence – the square is littered with the corpses of the demonstrators, and in the chilling stillness again the motif from the song Listen is heard.

The slow, mournful third movement, In Memoriam (“Eternal Memeory“), is a requiem for the dead. The mournful procession includes the songs You sacrifice fell in unequal struggle, Glorious sea, sacred Baikal and Bravely, comrades in battle, and the trio – Hail, free word of freedom. At the end of this Adagio, a motif from Part II (“Hats off”) reappears, a prelude to the finale, the fourth movement, called The Tocsin (Nabat).

The swirling maelstrom of the folk element begins with the song Rage, tyrants. One also hears motifs from Bravely, comrades in battle, Varshavianka, intonationally related to them is the bright melody from Sviridov’s operetta Flames, which Shostakovich quotes, and in the coda, with its sense of generalization, Eh, Thou, our Tsar, father and Hats off resurface. Shostakovich himself calls this opus his “most ‘Mussorgskyan symphony.

Perhaps today the Eleventh can hardly be understood by younger generations. Not only knowledge of history is needed, but also the emotional and aural memory of the time. The premiere was in Moscow – on 30 October with the USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Natan Rachlin. The general public perceived the work unequivocally as the apotheosis of the 1905 revolution, a dress rehearsal (in Lenin’s definition) for the Great October Epic. Some critics have noted the “expressionistic distortions” of the beloved revolutionary urban folklore, others a flavor of unacceptable vulgarity that lowers the patriotic models high. But these were isolated voices – in 1958 the work was awarded the Lenin Prize.

The poet Anna Akhmatova spoke of Shostakovich’s new symphony with enthusiasm: There the songs fly across the black, terrible sky like angels, like birds, like white clouds!  Marietta Shaginyan, in her review of the symphony, underlines its autobiographical nature in a delicate parallel with the experience of Stalin’s times: Memory directs you to the sense of alienation and fear, long since buried somewhere in the depths of the bygone but reawakened with the magic of art, sense of alienation and fear.

Symphony No. 11 by Dmitri Shostakovich was performed in Bulgaria two years after its world premiere – on January 29th,  1959 by the Sofia Philharmonic under the baton of Konstantin Iliev.

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