DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 11, The Year 1905 (1957)
By now, we know about Shostakovich’s fraught relationship with the repressive Soviet regime — particularly with Stalin and his cultural henchmen. The composer’s artistic fortunes were an emotional rollercoaster, from his early role as a golden boy after the 19-year old wrote his First Symphony, through his vilification resulting from the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, to his rehabilitation with his Fifth Symphony … and so on. When Stalin died in 1953, Shostakovich’s creative struggles were by no means over. Completed in 1957, the Symphony No. 11, with its subtitle “The Year 1905,” struck a chord with listeners. That was the year when hundreds of petitioners — poor peasants and factory workers — demonstrated in front of the Tsar’s Winter Palace, only to be brutally killed by the Cossack guards. The composer vividly depicts those events, announced in the movement titles: the frigid bleakness of “The Palace Square,” with its ominous timpani rhythms and cold brass calls; the second, “The Ninth of January,” which references Bloody Sunday, the day of the massacre; the third, “Eternal Memory,” a lament — a sort of requiem — for the victims and, ultimately, for all victims of tyranny. The symphony’s finale “Tocsin” sounds the alarm bell, foreshadowing terrors to come (and not so subtly reminding the listener of the contemporaneous invasion of Hungary in 1956). The music is filled with rage, unleashed at powerful dynamic levels. Unlike his previous symphonies, Shostakovich wove nine well-known Russian revolutionary and folk songs into the fabric of this epic creation, all of which are blended in a kind of apotheosis in the triumphant finale. The composer’s friend Lev Lebedinsky wrote that these songs represent the main protagonists in a drama, one in which the depicted events are clearly not of the past but very much of the present…. Not everyone grasped the contemporary implications of the Eleventh Symphony. In Russia, it is, after all, common practice for artists to resort to the life-saving language of folk-song.” Ironically, Shostakovich was awarded the Lenin Prize for the Eleventh in 1958.