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8.550629 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 11
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the son of an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As a pianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.
Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol, was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Golden Age was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism.
In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, and performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title Katerina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to which Shostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time.
In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet. In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now with Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social and practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of his compositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961.
In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title Katerina Ismailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.
The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity and lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and Küchelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9th August.
The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg had been fired on by troops, Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism. The testimony of others and a recent scholarly survey of the life and work of Shostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough. Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice of artistic integrity.
In Testimony Solomon Volkov understands the Eleventh Symphony of Shostakovich as a direct contemporary response to the events of 1956 in Hungary, concealed under the guise of a work recalling the tragedy of 1905. Bloody Sunday, on 9th January 1905, was a disturbing precursor of the revolution to come. Two years earlier Father Georgy Apollonovich Gapon had organised an Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill-Workers. A strike at the Putilov factory in St. Petersburg in 1905 over suspected victimisation of members of the Assembly led to an illegal march by some 200,000 workers and intellectuals to present a petition to the Tsar at the Winter Palace. Troops opened fire on the crowd and many demonstrators were killed, leading to further strikes and demonstrations throughout the country, and to a resolve by exiled Bolsheviks to resort to force in order to overturn the regime. The autumn brought concessions in the form of a representative assembly and the first Duma met in 1906, although dissent continued to be suppressed through the relatively moderate politician Stolypin, eventually assassinated in 1911. Bloody Sunday and the march on Palace Square, at which the father and uncle of Shostakovich had both been present, marked an important stage in the emergence of Russia into what promised to be an age of greater political and social justice. Whatever views the composer may later have held about the Revolution of 1917, 1905 was a year remembered in his family, as it was by others, as a year of tragic sacrifice in a rightful cause. In Testimony Volkov's Shostakovich talks of the recurrence of such events in Russian history, equating the happenings of 1905 in St. Petersburg with those of Budapest in 1956.
The Eleventh Symphony of Shostakovich was at one time seen abroad as mere Soviet propaganda, crudely cinematic programme music in support of Communism. With hindsight, coloured by Volkov's Testimony, the work may be regarded very differently. At home it proved acceptable to the official musical establishment. In 1958 the composer was awarded the Lenin Prize and the Party condemnation of 1948 was withdrawn, attributed now to Stalinist excesses, under the malign influence of Molotov, Malenkov and Beria. The work is scored for a large orchestra, which includes xylophone, celesta, tubular bells and a possible four harps, in addition to the usual woodwind and brass and a suggested total of eighty string players. The sombre first movement opens with muted strings and harps, followed by the entry of the timpani with a triplet rhythm figure and the Mahlerian sound of a muted trumpet fanfare. Into the texture he weaves two songs of nineteenth century political prisoners, Listen and The Prisoner. The second movement, introduced now by unmuted strings, brings the agitation and terror of the Cossack assault on the peaceful demonstrators, including here references to earlier compositions. In Memoriam mourns the victims of oppression, entrusted at first to the lower strings, and the composer continues to make use of themes popularly associated with the incidents of 1905 and the aspirations of the people. The last movement of a work that offers a vast canvas of historical and contemporary relevance, never descending to the level of a programmatic collage, has the title Nabat (Tocsin), a warning bell, the name of a review published by the exiled revolutionary Tkachev in Geneva, advocating violence in the cause of reform. The chosen title may be understood in a double sense in a movement that transcends the circumstances of its composition.
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
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