Symphony No.11

Dmitry Shostakovich

Symphony No.11 in G minor

Op. 103 • “The Year 1905”

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 ostensibly was written to commemorate the tragic events of January 9, 1905, when several hundred of about 10,000 demonstrators at the Tsar's St. Petersburg winter palace were killed on orders from government officials. The slaughter incited further demonstrations and anti-Tsarist activities, culminating in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Shostakovich would later claim, in the controversial Volkov book Testimony, that the symphony's inspiration was actually the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. In any event, the symphony was subtitled "1905," not "1956," and most of its themes were derived from Russian revolutionary songs. Its four movements, all with subtitles, are played without pause. The first (Adagio) is subtitled "The Palace Square" and opens in a somber, dark mood built on several motifs, a crucial one on drums representing the protesters forming at the palace. Themes from two rather mournful revolutionary songs, Listen and The Prisoner, are then presented and later developed. The movement is permeated by ominous thudding drums, eerie string writing, and a growing sense of unrest. The nearly 20-minute second movement (Allegro - Adagio) is subtitled "The Ninth of January" and depicts the bloody events of that day. It is the most complex and dramatic panel, recalling motivic and thematic material from the first movement and using themes from two songs in Shostakovich's 10 Poems for chorus without orchestra -- "Comrades, the Bugles Are Sounding" and "Bare Your Heads" -- the latter reappearing at climactic moments in the third and fourth movements. The most dramatic music in the second movement comes with the fugato section, which builds to a brutal, percussive climax using a variant of the demonstrators' motif to depict the slaughter. The eerie quiet from the symphony's opening follows, leading into the Adagio third movement. Subtitled "In Memoriam," it is mournful, using the melody from the popular song "You Fell As a Victim." Later, the theme from another song, "Welcome, the Free Word of Liberty," is quoted, after which comes a powerful climax. The finale (Allegro non troppo) is subtitled "The Tocsin" (alarm bell). In its feverish opening, it alludes to the music in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10's second movement, which supposedly satirizes Stalin (Volkov). Later, the melody from "Rage, You Tyrants" is used and the movement gradually takes on a defiant, triumphal air, with a bell tolling its warning at the symphony's powerful close.