Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 11 in G minor ‘The Year 1905’ (1957)
The history of Russia and the Soviet Union has left its stamp on Dmitri Shostakovich’s oeuvre in many ways and in many shades, especially in his symphonic music. Several of the Russian’s fifteen symphonies refer directly to historical events: the Second World War [Symphony no. 7 ‘Leningrad’ (1942), Symphony No. 8 (1943), Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’ (1962)] and the Bolshevik Revolution [Symphony No. 12, subtitled ‘The Year 1917’ (1961), which is dedicated to Lenin]. In his Symphony No. 11 the composer alludes to an even earlier event in the history of his country, namely the Revolution of 1905 – a nationwide social uprising against the absolutist rule of the Tsar and the oppressive rule of landowners and industrialists. The revolution triggered a political transformation in Russia, which, in turn, led to the February and October Revolutions of 1917. The premiere of Symphony No. 11 in G minor, subtitled ‘The Year 1905’, was staged on 30 October 1957 in Moscow during the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. The State Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Natan Rachlin, and the performance on 3 November in Leningrad was led by Yevgeny Mravinsky.
This four-movement piece (the successive movements should be played attaca) lasts around one hour. Despite its traditional structure its form is more akin to that of a symphonic poem and the titles and content of the individual movements refer directly to specific episodes in history.
The first movement, The Palace Square, is a cold chorale adagio, which gives the listener a first hint of the prevailing atmosphere of the piece. The strings play the leading role here, accompanied by the ominous rumbling of the timpani and the signals of brass instruments, which sound like a call against the kettledrums.
The second and longest movement – Ninth of January – alludes to the events of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ that took place on 22 January in St. Petersburg. On that day, protesters marched on the Winter Palace, demanding eight-hour-long working days and an amnesty for political prisoners. Their intention was to hand to the Tsar in person a petition containing over 135,000 signatures. However, his forces attacked a crowd almost 100,000 strong. The number of killed and wounded (including women and children) exceeded 1,000. Ninth of January is the most dramatic movement of the piece: first, the music hurtles along at breakneck speed only to dwell for a moment in a subdued melody of low strings before setting off again into the unknown. And so it goes on, through rushed and quiet moments, through bursts of kettledrums and austere string motifs and thickening crescendos of wind instruments, right up to the percussion-based culmination, cut off suddenly by an abrupt silence followed by a return once more to the first themes. The images are conjured up under the eyelids – it is then no surprise that Symphony No. 11 is sometimes described as a movie without image, a soundtrack purposefully devoid of a film tape.
The third movement, In Memoriam, again in the character of a calming adagio, is a lamentation against violence, with the music based on the revolutionary funeral march You fell as Victims (this is in fact not the only quote from a revolutionary song), interrupted only by an explosion of instruments using material from the symphony’s second movement. The appearance of the revolutionary tune in different parts, with its colourful and ominous counterpoint, testifies to the composer’s masterful command of polyphony.
Lastly, there’s time for the finale – The Tocsin (The Alarm Bell). First, there is a resounding march (again reworking the material from the second movement), which turns into the first climax that ends with the assertive melody of the English horn. The second march leads to the alarm being struck by the eponymous bell (against kettledrums) and another climax that Shostakovich builds through harmonic discord: the bell strikes the alarm in g minor and the orchestra plays in G major. Resolution is brought about by music that foreshadows the events of the year 1917.
Shostakovich quotes nine revolutionary songs in his symphony. Some of these date right back to the 19th century, while others were written in the year of the Revolution. They include Varshavyanka 1905 and the songs O Thou, Our Tsar, Our Little Father and Bare your Heads, which serve as the basis for the culmination in the second, third and fourth movements, and are in a way the most important for the structure of the piece. What is most important, however, is the way in which Shostakovich introduced this traditional material into his work – material that he was very familiar with, because he had often heard revolutionary songs in his family home.
The work is an obvious example of programme music. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Symphony No. 11 is seen as one of the most characteristic specimens of late socialist realism. However, the composer himself treated it as a very personal piece and pointed out references to Modest Mussorgsky in the second movement, evident in the way that the tragedy of the nation is presented. In turn, the events of Bloody Sunday served as a pretext for the composer to tell the story of the Soviet Union’s aggressive treatment of Hungary in 1956.
Symphony No. 11 brought the composer numerous state awards, with the Lenin Prize (1958) being the most prominent. In May 1958 Shostakovich became a member of the National Academy of St Cecilia in Rome and was the first foreigner to be awarded the French title of the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (on this occasion, his Symphony No. 11 was performed in Paris to great acclaim). In July that same year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University, and towards the end of the year he became the third composer in history to win the Sibelius Award (the first was Igor Stravinsky and the second – Paul Hindemith). And perhaps it was because of these successes that Shostakovich decided to compose the operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki…