Symphony No. 11 (Shostakovich)

The Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 (subtitled The Year 1905), by Dmitri Shostakovich was written in 1957 and premiered by the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Natan Rakhlin on 30 October 1957. The subtitle of the symphony refers to the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905. However, the music may also reflect the Soviet invasion of Hungary, as the symphony was composed in the aftermath of the events. Shostakovich himself was quoted saying "don't forget that I wrote the symphony in the aftermath of Hungarian Uprising".[1] The first performance given outside the Soviet Union took place in London's Royal Festival Hall on 22 January 1958 when Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The US Premiere was given by Leopold Stokowski and the Houston Symphony Orchestra on 7 April 1958.

The symphony was conceived as a popular piece and proved an instant success in Russia—his greatest, in fact, since the Leningrad Symphony fifteen years earlier.[2] The work's popular success, as well as its earning him a Lenin Prize in April 1958, marked the composer's formal rehabilitation from the Zhdanov Doctrine of 1948.

A month after the composer had received the Lenin Prize, a Central Committee resolution "correcting the errors" of the 1948 decree restored all those affected by it to official favor, blaming their treatment on "J. V. Stalin's subjective attitude to certain works of art and the very adverse influence exercised on Stalin by Molotov, Malenkov and Beria".[3]


The symphony is scored for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling cor anglais), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, orchestral bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, tubular bells, 2 harps (preferably doubled), celesta and strings.


Demonstrators march to the Winter Palace

The symphony has four movements played without break, and lasts approximately one hour.

  1. Adagio (The Palace Square)
    The first movement reflects the discomforting quietness of Palace Square on the morning of Bloody Sunday. The Adagio incorporates two Russian folk songs, Slushai ("Hearken"), and Arrestant ("The Prisoner"), played by flute and bass respectively, that are associated with famed political figures.[4] Throughout the movement Shostakovich calls for timpani motifs that allude to events to come
  2. Allegro (The 9th of January)
    The second movement, referring to the events of Bloody Sunday at the Winter Palace on 22 January 1905 [O.S. 9 January]. Shostakovich bases the movement on two themes from his Ten Choral Poems on Revolutionary Texts, entitled Goy ty, tsar nash, batyushka ("O though, our Tsar, our father"), and Obnazhite golovy ("Bare your heads").[4] The first section depicts the petitioners at the protest, in which crowds descended on the Winter Palace to complain about the government's increased inefficiency, corruption, and harsh ways. This first section is busy and constantly moves forward. It builds to two steep climaxes, then recedes into a deep, frozen calm in the prolonged piccolo and flute melodies, underscored again with distant brass.
    Another full orchestra build-up launches into a pounding march, in a burst from the snare drum like gunfire and fugal strings, as the troops descend on the crowd. This breaks out into a section of relentless strings, and trombone and tuba glissandos procure a nauseating sound underneath the troops' advance on the crowd. Then comes a section of mechanical, heavily repetitive snare drum, bass drum, timpani, and tam-tam solo before the entire percussion sections breaks off at once. Numbness sets in with a section reminiscent of the first movement.
  3. Adagio (Eternal Memory)
    The third movement is a lament on the violence, based on the revolutionary funeral march Vy zhertvoyu pali ("You fell as victims").[4] Toward the end, there is one more outbreak, where material from the second movement is represented.
  4. Allegro non troppo (Tocsin)
    The finale serves as a warning and a stance of defiance. Shostakovich uses celesta as a tocsin (in Russian nabat, also the name of a revolutionary magazine) to anticipate the events of 1917. Three pieces are quoted: Besnuytes, tyranny ("Rage, tyrants"), Varshavyanka ("Whirlwind of danger"), and Ogonki ("Sparks").[4]

The Eleventh is sometimes dubbed "a film score without the film". Indeed, the musical images have an immediacy and simplicity unusual even for Shostakovich the epic symphonist, and an additional thread is provided by the nine revolutionary songs that appear during the work. Some of these songs date back to the 19th century, others to the year 1905. Shostakovich does not merely quote these songs; he integrates them into the symphonic fabric within the bounds of his compositional style. This use of pseudo-folk material was a marked departure from his usual technique. However, it lent the symphony a strong emphasis on tonality and a generally accessible musical idiom.[5] They were also songs the composer knew well. His family knew and sang them regularly while he was growing up.[6]

A line of armed soldiers facing peaceful demonstrators at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg: still from the Soviet movie Devyatoe yanvarya "9th January" (1925)



Shostakovich originally intended the Eleventh Symphony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and would have written it in 1955. Several personal factors kept him from composing the work until 1957. These factors included his mother's death, his tumultuous second marriage and the arrival of many newly freed friends from the Gulag. Events in Hungary in 1956 may have stirred Shostakovich out of his compositional inertia and acted as a catalyst for his writing the symphony.[7]

Requiem for a generationEdit

According to the composer's son-in-law Yevgeny Chukovsky, the original title sheet for this symphony read not "1905" but "1906", the year of the composer's birth. This causes critics to view the Eleventh Symphony as a requiem not only for the composer himself but for his generation. Still, because the work was composed for the Revolution, its purpose is not lost. The 1905 Revolution was not politicised by the Party, so the piece maintained its romantic aura in the eyes of later generations. Because of this romantic aura, The Eleventh Symphony is among a group of diverse works that embody a spirit of struggle for a just cause, such as Sergei Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin and Boris Pasternak's narrative poems "1905" and "Lieutenant Schmidt."[8]

The title, "The Year 1905", recalls the start of the first Russian Revolution of 1905, which was partially fired by the events on 9 January (9 January by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, modern date of 22 January 1905) of that year. Some Western critics characterized the symphony as overblown "film music" – in other words, as an agitprop broadsheet lacking both substance and depth.[2] Many now consider the work to carry a much more reflective attitude, one that looks at Russian history as a whole from the standpoint of 1957, four years after the death of Stalin.

Most Mussorgskian symphonyEdit

Regardless, Shostakovich considered this work his most "Mussorgskian" symphony. Mussorgsky for him symbolised two things—the people and recurrence. Since it was about the people who suffered as a result of the Bloody Sunday, he wrote it in a simple, direct manner and stated "The people would basically be destined to suffer at the hands of indifferent autocrats; they would periodically protest in the name of humanity, only to be betrayed or punished."[9] The composer reportedly told Solomon Volkov, "I wanted to show this recurrence in the Eleventh Symphony... It's about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over."[10] While this passage may have seemed far-fetched to some critics when Testimony first appeared, especially in the context of linking the symphony to the Hungarian Revolution, the concept of recurrence is reportedly one that has been central to Russian artists in the wake of that event and held tremendous significance among the intelligentsia in Russia.[11]

The revolutionary song quotations in the work itself can support many interpretations: in the first movement, the song "Slushay!" ("Listen!") contains the text "The autumn night is ... black as the tyrant's conscience," while the final movement refers to a piece including the words "shame on you tyrants", mixing with it motifs borrowed, with ironic or possibly bitter intent, from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre overture, during which Siegmund (later murdered) flees from his enemies through a forest. Volkov compares this movement's juxtaposition of revolutionary songs (notably the Varshavianska song) to a cinematic montage, while quoting Anna Akhmatova's description of it as "white birds against a black sky".

Some have argued that Shostakovich's inclusion of these songs makes more explicit in the symphony the actual chain of consequences as well as events being portrayed—namely, that had Tsar Nicholas II listened to the people's demands and liberalized the government in 1905 to the point where widespread social change was enacted, there would not have been a recurrence of protest 12 years later to topple him from power.[12] Failing to listen, the tsar's head is bowed as he inherits the consequences portrayed in the symphony's finale. Thus, in Shostakovich's formal scheme for the symphony, denial of the people merely incites violence and a further cycle of recurrence. Cementing this message is the subtitle for the symphony's final movement, "Nabat" (translated in English as "tocsin" or "alarm" or "the alarm drum"). Nabat was also the title of a 19th-century review, edited by Narodnik Pyotr Tkachev, who was notorious for maintaining that nothing, however immoral, was forbidden from the true revolutionary. Tkachev advocated that revolution should be carried out by a small, motivated Party willing to use whatever means necessary, rather than by the people themselves.[13]

Hungarian RevolutionEdit

The similarities between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 have led critics to believe that Shostakovich wrote the symphony in part as a response to the events of the Hungarian Revolution in Budapest. In both cases a peaceful uprising was put down with great force by the Russian government.[14] Shostakovich himself speaks to the recurrence of events in Russian history in his testimony, stating that the Eleventh Symphony "deals with contemporary themes even though it's called '1905.'"[15] His widow Irina has also said that he had the Hungarian Revolution "in mind" during composition.[16][full citation needed] The symphony, which was finished in 1957, relayed themes of an oppressive government and its brutal policies towards revolts. The timing (being just one year after the Hungarian Revolution) strongly suggests that Shostakovich was speaking not only about events in his own country, but those events that his government was involved with.[14] While the symphony incorporated enough revolutionary songs that it lay under the radar of the government, the underlying themes would have resonated fully with people at the time.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Wilson, E. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, pp. 360–361
  2. ^ a b MacDonald, 214.
  3. ^ MacDonald, 214, 218–19.
  4. ^ a b c d Freed, Richard. "Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, "The Year 1905"". The Kennedy Center. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  5. ^ New Grove, 17:269.
  6. ^ Volkov, 37–38.
  7. ^ MacDonald, 216.
  8. ^ Volkov, 39.
  9. ^ MacDonald, 214–215.
  10. ^ Quoted in MacDonald, 215.
  11. ^ MacDonald, 215.
  12. ^ Figes, 261.
  13. ^ MacDonald, 217–218.
  14. ^ a b Weininger, David. "Eleventh Symphony reveals the political complexities of Shostakovich". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 4 November 2018.
  15. ^ Volkov, Solomon (1979). Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (First ed.). New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. p. 8.
  16. ^ DSCH Journal, No. 12 p. 72.


External linksEdit

  • London Shostakovich Orchestra
  • Some revolutionary songs quoted in the symphony can be heard here. ("Слушай", "Вы жертвою пали...", "Беснуйтесь, тираны", "Варшавянка")