Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906, in Saint Petersburg and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He began the Symphony No. 11 in 1956 and completed it on August , 1957. Natan Rakhlin conducted the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in the first performance on October 30, 1957. Leopold Stokowski conducted the Houston Symphony in the first US performance on April 7, 1958. Leonard Slatkin led the first performances by the San Francisco Symphony in October 1985; Michael Tilson Thomas led the most recent performances in February 2000. The score calls for double woodwinds plus piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two to four harps, percussion (including xylophone, celesta, and bells), and strings. Performance time: one hour.
Shostakovich knew all about ambiguity, in music and in words. He thrived (even survived) by it, and few works make the point more clearly than his massive Eleventh Symphony.
His precociously brilliant First Symphony, composed in 1925, when he was nineteen, had catapulted him into stardom as the darling of the Soviet establishment. And so he remained until 1936, when he fell foul of Joseph Stalin, who had taken exception to his then very popular opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Twice in ten days Shostakovich was subjected to savage vilification in Pravda. He never breathed easy again, although he was partially rehabilitated, in the public view, by his immensely popular Fifth Symphony. From 1935 onwards, it was the duty of every composer in the USSR to conform to the requirements of what was variously described as “Socialist” or “Soviet” Realism. But the prescribed doctrine was a hard one to live up to, for music's limitations as a specifically representational art are extreme.
Yet in 1957, in the view of the now post-Stalinist Soviet regime, Shostakovich acquitted himself in the Eleventh Symphony, with its potent subtitle, The Year 1905—an emotive date in the heart of every Soviet citizen. It was in that year that hundreds of poverty stricken petitioners—mostly peasants and factory workers, all peaceably assembled—were shot, slashed, or hacked to death by the Cossack police guarding the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, where the Tsar, unbeknownst to the demonstrators, was not even in residence at that time.
The immediacy of the work's appeal to its Russian audience was enhanced in part through Shostakovich's use of well-known folk, revolutionary, and prison songs—most pre-dating the successful Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but known to most of his listeners.
In the vast opening movement, Shostakovich evokes first the spacious emptiness of the square outside the Winter Palace, then the misery of the converging protesters, huddling together as they trudge through the snow, and behind it all, the growing desperation that has brought them here. The second movement, of still more epic cast, depicts first the prelude to the massacre as the huge crowds assemble, secondly the terrible event itself, and finally its immediate aftermath, as thousands of unarmed men lie dead or dying in the snow. (The number killed appears to have been around 300, though Soviet figures inflated this to 5,000 killed and 2,000 wounded.)
The third movement, Eternal Memory, is at one level a requiem for the fallen on that notorious “Bloody Sunday” but can also be understood as a requiem for the hopes of the Russian people who had lived under Tsarist rule for many centuries. Ultimately, however, it transcends the particular, and much of it can be interpreted as a lament for humanity in general. In fact the very time span of the work and the slowness of its pacing have uncomfortable connotations of eternity, symbolising, for those prepared to look beyond the obvious, the fateful recurrence of tyrannical atrocities throughout Russian history, whatever the complexion of the government. Even after the death of Stalin, this was a risky game for Shostakovich to be playing.
Politically speaking, though, he was skating on even thinner ice in the finale, with its implication that while the protesters of 1905 might have fallen, the circumstances that had inspired them lived on (worse yet, had returned) to haunt the current incumbents of the Kremlin, who were doomed to fall as surely as the Romanovs had fallen before them.
However doctrinaire and specific the indicated program, this is a work shot through with ambiguities from beginning to end. “1905” may be the year in the title, but the work was composed and premiered in the aftermath of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, which claimed some 20,000 lives. As the musicologist Lev Lebedinsky put it, "What we heard in this music was not the police firing on the crowd in front of the Winter Palace in 1905, but the Soviet tanks roaring through the streets of Budapest. This was so clear ‘to those who had ears to listen,’ that [Shostakovich's] son, with whom he wasn't in the habit of sharing his deepest thoughts, whispered during the dress rehearsal, ‘Papa, what if they hang you for this?’”
All in all, the work is a remarkable example of thematic continuity and integration, much of it derived from the opening idea, which returns again and again, in one form or another. The symphony unfolds without break between the four movements. From the very beginning, Shostakovich's brilliance as an orchestral colorist casts a mesmerising spell, in the combination of widely spaced, divided strings, serving both as hushed foreground and as background to the “tolling” harp chords, and the ominous unease of the timpani, who introduce the symphony's second “motto.” Not until the movement has unfolded to almost ten minutes do we get a real melody. The first of the several “prison songs” quoted, this one, “Listen,” given out by a solo flute, is played to the counterpoint of another song. The unspoken text of “Listen” will have resonated in many a Russian heart: "The autumn night is as black as treason, black as the tyrant's conscience. Blacker than that night a terrible vision rises from the fog—prison.” The cellos introduce another prison song, “The Convict” ("The night is dark;/ Try to catch the minutes./ But the walls of the prison are strong./ On the closed gates are two iron locks.").
The second movement, depicting the massacre, begins with another quotation, this one taken from “Bare Your Heads,” the sixth of Shostakovich's Ten Poems for Chorus on Texts by Revolutionary Poets ("O Tsar, our little father,/ Look around you;/ Life is impossible for us because of the Tsar's servants, / Against whom we are helpless."). This sets the scene with an air of confusion, even chaos, which takes some time to get off the ground. But when it does, it moves with unstoppable force, bringing in the entire orchestra, and invoking the trumpet theme as a means of heralding the Cossacks, whose arrival in ever greater numbers is depicted by a grimly determined fugue. The movement ends with another invocation of the eerie passage with which the symphony began.
The third movement is a funeral march. The main theme is from the so-called Proletarian Requiem (the song "You Fell as Sacrifice")—given out first by the violas. The profusion of quotations continues in the middle section, with two more revolutionary songs leading to the inspirational “Hail, Free Word of Liberty.” This, in turn, leads with ever mounting tension to a climactic return of “Bare Your Heads.”
In the triumphant finale, Shostakovich proves himself an audience manipulator on a par with Lenin himself. His lavish palette is matched by a tremendous rhythmic power. Here many of the songs invoked in earlier movements return in a great apotheosis.
Jeremy Siepmann, former Head of Music at the BBC World Service, is the author of Chopin: The Reluctant Romantic, and numerous articles that have appeared in such publications as New Statesman, Gramophone, and BBC Music Magazine.
More About the Music
Recordings: Semyon Bychkov conducting the Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra (Avie) | Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live) | James DePreist conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic (Delos) | Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (Decca, out of print but available through arkivmusic.com)
Reading: Shostakovich: A Life, by Laurel E. Fay (Oxford) | Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, by Elizabeth Wilson (Princeton) | Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, by Boris Schwarz (Indiana University Press)
On DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also at keepingscore.org