The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, "The Year 1905"

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Richard Freed

The Symphony No. 11, composed for the 40th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, was introduced in Moscow on October 30, 1957, by the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Nathan Rakhlin. Mstislav Rostropovich conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, on October 29, 30 and 31, 1992; this week's performances under Leonard Slatkin are the first since then.

The score calls for 3 flutes and piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, bells, tambourine, xylophone, celesta, 2 harps, and strings. Duration, 62 minutes.


There could hardly be a greater contrast between the tiny, unassuming Symphony in G major that opens this week's concerts and the big, brooding one in G minor that closes them. Whether he wished it or not, it has been Shostakovich's lot to be regarded as a ?chronicler? in his music. Although some skeptics maintain that he was a compliant supporter of an oppressive regime, he is generally understood to have faced constant and quite serious threats from that regime and to have found the strength to survive in order to regard his people's latter-day ?Time of Troubles? (a phrase used earlier in Russia in reference to the era of Boris Godunov)?and to encode his own deepfelt protest. Inevitably, such considerations can only complicate and confuse our response to the music itself?we are not permitted the freedom of listening to it as we might to an untitled score by an unidentified composer?and none of Shostakovich's works has created such controversy in this respect as his Eleventh Symphony.

Ostensibly, this work commemorates a tragic event in Russian history, the abortive Revolution of 1905, with that year in its title and appropriate headings for the respective individual movements. There is good reason to believe, however, that the real impetus for the work, composed in 1957, was the abortive Hungarian uprishing of the previous year, which had been brutally put down by the heirs of the 1905 Revolution. Largely, if not entirely, lost in the arguments for or against this interpretation is the question of how the validity of this work as a symphony may be affected by the one conclusion or the other.

To be sure, Shostakovich was no outspoken dissident. The image that has come down to us is not that of an overt ?fighter,? but rather a tormented survivor , a man who bit his lip and seethed within while accepting abuse and making the required public gestures, all the while determined to preserve a record of truth, and of his own feelings, for those who would listen.

He learned to watch his step early on. He was barely into his twenties when he was subjected to an astonishingly serious public scolding for his orchestration of Vincent Youmans's song ?Tea for Two,? and not quite 30 when the denunciation ?from on high? of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District precipitated his withdrawal of his Fourth Symphony during rehearsals. By then many artists, writers and musicians, as well as political figures, had paid dearly for thoughts openly expressed, or, in many instances, thoughts merely suspected. During the five years between Andrei Zhdanov's public excoriation of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and other major figures of Soviet cultural life in February 1948 and the death of Joseph Stalin on March 5, 1953 (the same day Prokofiev died), Shostakovich simply put away much of the music he wrote, saving those scores for a more propitious time. His First Violin Concerto, composed in 1947-48 and given the opus number 77, was not brought out until 1955, by then labeled Op. 99. (Shostakovich never reassigned the earlier number, and eventually referred to the Concerto as ?Op. 77/99.?) The speed with which he composed the great Tenth Symphony, almost immediately following Stalin's death, suggests that that work had been fully formed in his mind by then and he had simply waited for the right time to set it down on paper and bring it before the public.

Even in bringing such scores to light, Shostakovich said little about them in respect to any sort of descriptive or symbolic content. He did remark that the scherzo of the Tenth Symphony is ?a portrait of Stalin,? but for the most part he was careful not to say too much. He saved some of his most personal utterances for his chamber music, and in particular his string quartets, which are filled with symbolic citations of motifs from his symphonies and his other works. He had begun earlier to affect such disguises. The Fifth Symphony, the work with which he ?rehabilitated? himself in 1937 after his major fall from official grace the previous year, was introduced with the apologetic note, ?A Soviet artist's practical, creative reply to just criticism? (which may not have been the composer's own words). The Fifth, however, still his most enduringly popular work, is heard now not as an exultant gesture of patriotic pride, but as a resentful survivor's inward roar of defiance.

The Fifth Symphony's enthusiastically received premiere took place during the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution; the Eleventh, introduced under similar circumstances 20 years later, is said to be a prime example of the same sort of disguised?or ?coded??defiance, a protest that may well have been understood as such by more than a few of the composer's compatriots, especially those of the younger generation, who had been shattered by recent events in Hungary.

Shostakovich himself apparently said next to nothing to confirm such an interpretation. Solomon Volkov, in his still controversial book Testimony (?The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov,? published in the United States in 1979 by Harper & Row, in an English translation by Antonina W. Bouis), merely notes parenthetically that the Symphony was ?written after the 1956 Hungarian uprising.? The only statement Volkov attributes to Shostakovich in that context is the remark that the work has to do with events repeating themselves in Russian history, and that ?it deals with contemporary themes even though it's called ?1905.' It's about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.?

Some Russian musicians who were close to Shostakovich have stated that his impetus in composing this work was indeed his traumatic reaction to the way his own country had dealt with the uprising in Hungary, pointing out that 1956, the year of the ?second thaw,? was a year of protest in the USSR and that the events in Hungary had shaken and disillusioned even the most hopeful among them. Others, however, have declared that without a direct statement from the composer they had no way of knowing, or have in some instances have vacillated.

When the New York Philharmonic performed this work under Yakov Kreizberg a half-dozen years ago, the program booklet carried two essays representing opposing views: Harlow Robinson, the author of a well regarded biography of Prokofiev, supported the idea of the events in Hungary as the real impetus for the Eleventh Symphony, while Laurel Fay, the author of a recent biographical study of Shostakovich, argued against this, noting that the composer had discussed his intentions for the work well before the uprising in Hungary took place. Certainly those intentions might have been modified: Shostakovich may have been quick to recognize the parallels between the event designated in the Symphony's title and the one that took place in Hungary when he was composing the work?and he would of course have said little about it, because the implications of that very situation had made it more necessary for him to disguise such a gesture. Still more to the point, as Mstislav Rostropovich, who was close to Shostakovich at the time the Eleventh Symphony was composed (the next major work from the composer was the first of his two cello concertos for Rostropovich), remarked at the time he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of the Eleventh Symphony, is that this is

a symphony written in blood, a truly tragic work. It is unremittingly tragic, and not so much about 1905 or 1956, perhaps, as about the persistently tragic pattern in human events. All revolutions, after all, are tragic events.

Shostakovich was born less than two years after the 1905 Revolution, which took place in his native city and was discussed frequently and intensely in his childhood home. The brutality depicted in searing detail left an indelible imprint on his mind. It was perhaps the darkest hour in modern Russian history. For several years there had been scattered protests over education, housing, working conditions, and other issues; then, following assassinations of cabinet ministers and calls for democratic reform, the gratuitous war with Japan in 1904 had left Russia's economy, living conditions and morale at an all-time low. On January 9, 1905, a Sunday, thousands of people gathered before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to present their peaceable petition to the Tsar, who had been advised of the demonstration by its organizers and had been expected to receive their respectful entreaties with kindness. The assembled men, women and children carried religious artifacts and sang the anthem ?God Save the Tsar.? But the 37-year-old Nicholas II had taken his family out of the capital, and the peaceful demonstrators were confronted by Cossack troops and police, who ordered them to disperse. Stunned, and physically immobilized by their own close-packed numbers, they were unable to move, and were literally mowed down by rifle fire from the troops; hundreds were killed, and the blood of many more stained the snow.

(Musicians were not immune from involvement, or from consequences, in 1905. Rimsky-Korsakov, who showed his sympathy with the demonstrating students of the conservatory that now bears his name, and contributed to their cause a stirring orchestral arrangement of the folk song ?Dubinushka,? was dismissed from his professorship, and his junior colleague Glazunov resigned his own professorship in protest. Rimsky became a hero, his ?Dubinushka? was performed to cheering crowds, and by the year's end he was reinstated at the conservatory and Glazunov was made its director.)

Ahtough the attempted revolution did not succeed, it had many consequences, planting the seeds for what was to come a dozen years later. Mutinies became frequent in the army and navy, and by the time the Tsar was moved to undertake some token reforms it was too late. The young priest Georgy Gapon, the organizer and spokesman for the January 9 demonstration, escaped to Finland, from which refuge (actually still under Russian control at the time) he sent the Tsar a flaming curse for his betrayal of his people.

While the Russians who appeared in the Palace Square in January 1909 came peaceably and many of them actually felt respect and affection for the Tsar, whom they addressed as ?our father,? there was no spark of good will on the part of the Hungarians who massed in Budapest's Parliament Square on October 25, 1956?though they too were peaceable in their demonstration. The puppet regime that had been in place in Budapest since the end of World War II was the harshest and most oppressive in any of the Soviet satellite states, running up a record of abduction, false imprisonment, torture, denunciations and forced confessions to rival Stalin at his peak. The clear-eyed resolve the Hungarians showed had particular significance to the Russians, by then in their so-called ?second thaw,? and also in a ?year of protest.? Surely for Shostakovich, as for countless others in his country, the massacre of the 1,200 in 1905 St. Petersburg seemed to be repeated when the Hungarian secret police turned their machine guns on that peaceable assemblage in 1956 Budapest, leaving 600 dead. And surely no one anywhere could have been more horrified than Shostakovich and his like-mined compatriots when the Red Army itself went in to put down the uprising that followed. Ian MacDonald, in The New Shostakovich (Northeastern University Press, 1990), after presenting this background, quotes Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the several younger artists and writers in Russia who were so outspoken that they were eventually forced to leave their country:

After all the exposures, denunciations, and posthumous rehabilitations, after all the assurances about the impossibility of repeating the past, we were now presented with corpses, tanks, brute force and lies all over again. . . . After those red-starred tanks, the pride and joy of our childhood, had crushed our peers on the streets of Budapest, a bloody fog blinded our eyes. The whole world had betrayed us, and we believed in nobody.

Apart from his vivid recollections of eyewitness descriptions of the 1905 slaughter and his remark that his Eleventh Symphony ?deals with contemporary themes,? Shostakovich seems to have limited his comments on the work to its musical substance, which he related to his absorption in the music of Mussorgsky. Together with Mahler, Mussorgsky was a prime influence throughout Shostakovich's creative life. Mussorgsky, in fact, provided him with the roots of his own personal sort of nationalism. In 1940 Shostakovich orchestrated Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov and assigned the score the opus number 58 in his catalogue of his own works; in 1959 he orchestrated Khovanshchina , designating that score his Op. 106, and three years later he orchestrated the Songs and Dances of Death for the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. ?Working with Mussorgsky,? Shostakovich said (according to Volkov),

clarifies something important for me in my own work. Work on Boris contributed greatly to my Seventh and Eighth symphonies, and then was recalled in the Eleventh. (There was a time when I considered the Eleventh my most ?Mussorgskian? composition.) Something from Khovanshchina was transferred to the Thirteenth Symphony and to [the cantata] The Execution of Stepan Razin , and I even wrote about the connection between Songs and Dances of Death and my Fourteenth Symphony.

The Symphony's four movements are played without pause; their titles require only a few adjustments to fit the Hungarian scenario. The heading for the first movement, ?Palace Square,? thus becomes ?Parliament Square,? alluding, as the Hungarian writer and publisher Istv?n Csicery-R?nay points out, to the Budapest site on which the Hungarian Republic was proclaimed in 1918 and again in 1946, and on which funeral honors were paid to Endre Bajcsy Zsilinszky, the martyr of the anti-Nazi resistance. The desolate vastness of the square at daybreak is limned in this Adagio , with poignant forebodings from the muffled drum and solo trumpet. The sunrise is suggested by the flute, introducing the theme of ?Slushai!? (?Hearken!?), the first of the two folk songs on which the movement is largely built. The second one, ?Arrestant ? (?The Prisoner?) is introduced by the double basses. Both of these songs were specifically identified with political prisoners in the 19th century.

The second movement, headed ?Ninth of January? in the score, becomes ?25th of October? in the 1956 scenario, and the participants become the Hungarian public eager for an appearance by Imre Nagy, eager to hear whether the Soviet troops will actually evacuate the capital. In place of the Tsar's Cossacks, units of the AVO, the Hungarian political police, dissolve the peaceful assembly with guns. The scene, in any event, is the same: a faith betrayed, a slaughter of innocents. In this movement Shostakovich quotes two themes from a work of his own, the Ten Choral Poems on Revolutionary Texts , Op. 88, composed in 1951. Both themes come from the song bearing the same title as this movement of the Symphony, ?Ninth of January.? The first accompanies the people's plea to the Tsar, ?Goy ty, tsar nash, batyushka? (?O though, our Tsar, our father?), and the second gods with the words ?Obnazhite golovy? (?Bare your heads?). The graphic vehemence in the central part of this movement resembles somewhat the similar episode in Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. Music from the preceding movement is recalled at the end, as the square resumes its ghostly silence.

The third movement's title, ?Eternal Memory,? needs no alteration for the different scenario. Here, as Mr. Csicsery-R?nay observes, ?an entire country is burying its dead.? The proletarian funeral march ?Vy zhertvoyu pali? (?You fell as victims?) serves as the principal theme.

?Tocsin,? the final movement, is an ingathering of strength and a desperate gesture of defiance on the part of the survivors. (It may or may not be of significance that ?Toscin??in Russian, Nabat ?was the name of a revolutionary magazine published in 19th-century Russia.) The assertive themes are from the folk songs ?Besnuytes, tyranny? (?Rage, tyrants?) and ?Varshavyanka? (originally a Polish song, ?Whirlwind of danger?). Another borrowed theme is neither from folk music nor from Shostakovich's own compositions, but from Ogonki (?Sparks?), a musical comedy by his pupil Georgy Sviridov about pre-Revolutionary working-class life. In the solemn peroration the first movement's theme is heard, and then the English horn intones the second of the two ?Ninth of January? themes cited in the second movement. ?Bare your heads? returns before the Symphony concludes in a blaze of fanfares and alarm bells?the bells being a conspicuously Mussorgskian touch.

Shostakovich, of course, was confident his Russian audience would recognize the quoted material and its signiciance. Certainly, however, the citation of these Russian songs cannot be used to disprove the notion of the Hungarian setting. Shostakovich used these citations as part of his own language, as a Russian composer addressing a Russian audience that might be expected to find them symbolic of universal sentiments. Ian MacDonald sums up that the Eleventh Symphony,

premiered as a work of orthodox triumphalism at the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution, can be seen as, in reality, a covert attack on the very festivities of which it was nominally the prize exhibit.

That there has been no conclusive resolution of the controversy over the motivation for this work, or its descriptive content, may be to its advantage if it is to survive as a symphony defined musically rather than as a historical document emotionally limited by the narrowness of focus that inevitably accompanies pictorial or descriptive specificity. The value of a descriptive work, after all, lies in the universality of its application, not what may have been the composer's subjective motivation. Napoleon and General Abercrombie are merely footnotes now to the broader personal and musical impulses that moved Beethoven to compose the Eroica. Without suggesting any parallels between the two symphonies, we might acknowledge that the power of Shostakovich's Eleventh, in respect to musical and emotional content, is similarly resistant to attempts to pin it down to a specific scenario. Injustice and oppression were for Shostakovich, and remain for us, ?contemporary themes?; the ways we respond to them continue to define the level of our humanity. Shostakovich's response in this instance was one of the great tragic symphonies, in a line going back to Mahler (like Mussorgsky, a composer whose influence Shostakovich happily acknowledged) and Tchaikovsky.