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8.572082 - SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 1 - Symphony No. 11, "The Year 1905" (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Petrenko)
English 

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 11 ‘The Year 1905’, Op. 103

 

A third of a century after his death, the symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich have moved from the relative to the absolute centre of the orchestral repertoire: along with those of Mahler, they represent ‘modern’ music as it appears to the non-specialist concert-goer. Yet they differ from any comparable cycle since Beethoven in the absence (intended or otherwise) of a logical progression such as might have endowed their career-spanning inclusiveness with a parallel evolution from aspiration to fulfilment.

Of the symphonies, the First is a graduation work that catapulted the teenage composer to international prominence. The Second and Third represent a radical though reckless accommodation between modernist ends and revolutionary ends, while the Fourth stakes out the boundary (real or imagined) between the individual and society that was to remain a focal-point. The Fifth clarifies that boundary by paradoxically making it more equivocal, which process the Sixth continues by subverting the relationship still further. The Seventh is a reaction to civil conflict and social collapse that finds its equivalent in the Eighth, which in turn finds its opposite in the Ninth. The Tenth marks the genre’s culmination as outlet for an abstract programme. The Eleventh opens a period where Russian concerns were foremost, its historical acuity diluted by the impersonality of the Twelfth then intensified by the explicitness of the Thirteenth. The Fourteenth stands outside the genre as regards its form but not its content, while the Fifteenth marks a belated re-engagement with abstract symphonism such as might or might not have been continued.

Aside from film scores and a new version of his prewar opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as Katerina Ismailova, Shostakovich’s output since his Tenth Symphony had been modest. An engaging Concertino for two pianos (1953), the effervescent Festival Overture (1954) [Naxos 8.553126], and song-cycles Songs of Our Days (1954) and Spanish Songs (1956) hardly suggest a new direction, but the Sixth String Quartet (1956) [8.550972] and the Second Piano Concerto (1957) [8.553126] both confirm a greater directness of expression that was to typify his so-called ‘Russian period’ (roughly 1956–65).

Shostakovich began planning his Eleventh Symphony around the time of celebrations (also in part a rehabilitation) to mark his fiftieth birthday in September 1956. Allowing for time devoted to ‘official’ duties, notably the Second All-Union Congress of Soviet Composers the following spring, he completed it on 4 August 1957. A reduction for piano duet was tried out that September and the world première was given in Moscow on 30 October to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, Nathan Rakhlin conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. The Leningrad première came four days later, with Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic. The acclaim from both public and party brought Shostakovich his greatest success since that of his Seventh Symphony seventeen years earlier: the work was awarded a Lenin Prize in 1958, while performances in the West followed apace. Within a year of its première, the symphony had been commercially recorded four times (Rakhlin in Moscow, Mravinsky in Leningrad, Leopold Stokowski in Houston and André Cluytens in Paris) and remained a popular but not, albeit in the West, critical success throughout the next decade.

Two factors central to an understanding of this symphony need to be addressed. First, though Shostakovich makes extensive use of nine revolutionary songs (stemming not only from 1905 but also previous decades), these are employed not for their extra-musical or propagandist content but as thematic elements in the graphic, but not literal, depiction of events surrounding the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre of over two hundred peaceful demonstrators by Czarist soldiers on 9 January (in the Julian calendar) 1905: moreover, all are related to a rhythmic ‘motto’ heard on timpani very near the beginning which is a motivic nexus for the entire work. Secondly, though conceived against the background of the Hungarian Uprising, and the composer could hardly have been unaware of the historical correlation, this is no reason to believe that the piece is therefore ‘about’ events in 1956 rather than in 1905, whose significance to Shostakovich (his father and uncle witnessed the events at first hand) was undoubted. If a sub-text is at work, it is surely that of an intolerance which results when a government fears its people and resorts to force as a means of coercion: something as relevant to the Soviet Union of Krushchev as it was to the Russia of Nicholas II.

The Eleventh Symphony is scored for a sizable orchestra of triple woodwind, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (five players), celesta, harps (between two and four) and strings. The four movements play without pause so that the overall trajectory of context-event-commemoration-outcome can be felt as an unbroken continuity. The recourse to ‘popular’ melodies, as well as the allusions to symphonies by the composer’s forebears, endows the work with an innately Russian complexion: Shostakovich himself referred to it as his most Mussorgskian.

The first movement, Palace Square, starts with a theme in rhythmic unison on the strings that aptly evokes glacial stillness, followed by the all-pervasive motto on timpani. Distant trumpet calls denote human contrast, before the process is repeated (the trumpet calls now being heard on horns), then the string theme and timpani motto return once more. The central section consists of a wistful theme on flutes that assumes a malevolent quality when heard on brass and percussion: a further theme spreads across the orchestra, punctuated by ‘signals’ on trumpets and trombones, and is made the basis of a contrapuntal discourse that provides the main climax in which all the motivic elements are brought into play. The wistful theme appears again on bassoon, before strings resume their glacial theme and the trumpet calls are modified so that both ideas combine at the close, rounded off by more ‘signals’ on brass.

The second movement, The Ninth of January, opens with subdued though animated activity on the lower strings, a derivative of the sombre theme soon heard on woodwind. The rest of the orchestra enters as the first climax is reached, throwing up a further theme on brass and culminating in a heightened presentation of the woodwind theme that is made the basis of an anxiously expressive interlude. It then underpins the second climax, which itself culminates in a powerful restatement of the woodwind theme by the full orchestra. This at length dies down, joined by the glacial theme from the opening, to a fugitive motion on pizzicato strings and percussion. The mid-point is denoted by the glacial theme’s appearance on upper woodwind with its attendant brass calls, then the depiction of the massacre is launched by side drum and a vigorous string fugato ensues. Brass and percussion add to its momentum, before the music powers to a searing restatement of the glacial theme hammered out in unison by the whole orchestra and underpinned by martial percussion. At its height, the opening theme of the woodwind rears up before the clamour is curtailed: a spectral version of the glacial theme, now combined with several earlier motifs, emerges to evoke the fateful aftermath.

The third movement, Eternal Memory, starts with a halting motion on pizzicato strings, over which a noble melody (‘You Fell As Victims’, most famous of all the revolutionary songs and whose deployment was by no means limited to Soviet composers) is heard on violas then extended to upper strings. A sombre new theme, heard initially on woodwind and brass before being transformed on violins, begins the ascent to the apex, at the summit of which the climactic motif from the previous movement is sounded out balefully on full orchestra, underpinned by pounding timpani that continue as the intensity subsides. The viola melody, now a distant recessional, is heard again before pizzicato strings arrive at a questioning pause.

The fourth movement, The Tocsin, is launched by a strident brass motif that effects a rapid build-up of activity; one that draws in other motifs and culminates in an aggressive transformation of the glacial theme on full orchestra. This proceeds to a forthright theme on strings, its purposeful intent enhanced by tensile interjections from woodwind and brass, which leads to an eruptive discussion of the movement’s primary thematic elements and is underpinned by its initial brass motif. This, at length, reaches a climax in a confrontation between unison strings and brass, exploding into the return of the glacial theme, now the backdrop for a cor anglais melody that places everything heard hitherto into an eloquent new perspective. Stark chords then initiate the coda, the latter melody building up to a peroration in which the ‘alarm’ of bell strokes (derived from the opening motto) sends out a tonally ambivalent yet emotionally unequivocal message.

 

Richard Whitehouse


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