Symphony No. 11 in G minor, “The Year 1905,” Op. 103 (1957)

By Laurel E. Fay

Written for the concert Revolution 1905, performed on Jan 16, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

After the phenomenal international success of his Tenth Symphony (1953), Shostakovich’s Eleventh, “The Year 1905” (1957)—a large-scale programmatic work timed to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution—struck many of his admirers as disappointingly provincial. The opening salvo of the first, abortive Russian Revolution, the massacre of workers in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square on “Bloody Sunday” (January 9, 1905), forms the programmatic basis of the Symphony. Still, despite the expedience of its graphically realized program, the Eleventh transcends the level of propagandistic potboiler. The evils of tyranny and oppression with which the Symphony deals are a pervasive theme in the music of Shostakovich, one which he well knew is timeless and universal.

On the surface, Shostakovich’s “1905” Symphony would appear to be similar in conception to both his Symphony No. 2, “Dedication to October” (1927), and Symphony No. 3, “The First of May” (1929). Unlike both of these one-movement works, however, Shostakovich rejects the use of the chorus and explicit poetic texts in his later Symphony. The Eleventh is comprised of four movements, each with a descriptive subtitle, although the movements are unified thematically and are performed without a pause. The first movement, “The Palace Square,” sets the stage for the action to follow. Its uneasy tranquility is shattered by the second, “The Ninth of January.” Here, the mounting suspense becomes almost unbearable, making the advent of the massacre itself all the more dramatic. The last two movements represent two very different reactions to the carnage that has taken place. “Eternal Memory” focuses on the grief and sorrow; and in the final movement, “Alarm,” the forces of fury and confrontation are released.

To help convey the emotional intensity of the historical moment, Shostakovich relies on direct, if sometimes fleeting quotations from a number of popular revolutionary songs. The songs—including the funeral march “You Fell a Victim”; the battle march “Boldly, Comrades, Keep Step!”; the song of student protest “Rage, Tyrants!”; and the Polish revolutionary song “Varshavianka”—are among the most famous of the revolutionary legacy. All had their origins in the nineteenth century and all were already widely disseminated by 1905. Likewise, all have long been enshrined in the realm of musical folklore. For the Russian listener, even a snatch of one of these tunes carries a subtext of symbolic and concrete imagery, much as fragments of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “We Shall Overcome” might communicate to an American audience. In addition to the quotations from revolutionary songs, Shostakovich makes extensive use of two motifs from one of his own earlier compositions, “The Ninth of January,” (No. 6 of Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, Op. 88), a song for unaccompanied chorus that treats the events of Bloody Sunday explicitly. Each of those two motifs is striking and distinctive. Indeed, the musical identity of all the borrowed material is so strong that Shostakovich is able to treat it with great flexibility, developing its symphonic potential and exploring the melodic and rhythmic interconnections. Underlying the explication of the extramusical program is a highly sophisticated and integrated musical structure. While the basic building-blocks of the Symphony may be less familiar to the non-Russian listener than to the native, Shostakovich succeeds in crafting those blocks into a vivid and compelling drama that communicates, as only music can, across national boundaries.