A Symphony for our Time — Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony

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IF EVER THERE WAS A SYMPHONY FOR OUR TIME, it must be the 11th Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1957). I’ve been doing a special study of this work for some time and the more I listen to it and analyse how it captivates the listener, the more I am convinced that it speaks right into the world like a TERRIBLE AND OMINOUS WARNING from a parallel universe. Hardly surprising that an audience member yells out “Arrrrgghh” at the end of this video recording. It is music of great beauty and power, casting a spell over the listener from the very first notes. Please do not click away from this, thinking that classical music (so-called) has nothing to tell you. That would be a mistake. For this symphony is like a contemporary epic film score which takes the listeners/viewers on a journey. To listen to it is to participate in the movie, as the music is all-encompassing and sometimes utterly overwhelming, just as music should be.

At just about an hour long, this symphony was purportedly written about an event which took place on the 9th January 1905, when the people came to the Tsar’s palace in a vast peaceable crowd to ask for compassion concerning their extreme hardship and poverty. The Tsar happened to be away at the time and the secret police chief ordered troops to open fire on the crowd killing hundreds of people. Shostakovich’s father was one of the survivors in that crowd, so this event meant much to him and his family. The composer reminisced: “The stories [of that event in 1905] deeply affected my imagination. When I was older, I read much about how it all happened… They were carting a mound of murdered children on a sleigh. The boys had been sitting in the trees, looking at the soldiers, and the soldiers shot them – just like that, for fun. They then loaded them on the sleigh and drove off. A sleigh loaded with children’s bodies. And the dead children were smiling. They had been killed so suddenly that they hadn’t had time to be frightened.”

Although the symphony is titled “1905”, it is (as always with Shostakovich) about so much more than merely the event it claims to mark. He has actually taken that event as a starting point to show how history — especially the history of state oppression and killings — repeats itself. About this music, the composer said: “I think that many things repeat themselves in Russian history. Of course, the same event can’t repeat itself exactly. There must be differences, but many things are repeated nevertheless. People think and act similarly in many things… I wanted to show this recurrence in the Eleventh Symphony. I wrote it in 1957 and it deals with contemporary themes even though it’s called ‘1905’. It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.” Those were his words. The “contemporary themes” to which he was referring must surely be the crushed uprising of the people in Hungary in 1956, a year before the symphony was written. Shostakovich saw the Russian Revolution as a failure as it inevitably led to the revolutionised state becoming the new oppressor — this is also what he means by history recurring, repeating itself. Virtually all of Shostakovich’s artistic friends and colleagues had been murdered or “disappeared” by the secret police under Stalin. He knew the hollow nature of “revolution”.

So, in his own words, his 11th Symphony is “about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.” I have never in my life heard that cup of evil portrayed so vividly as in the second part (movement) of this symphony about half way through (minutes 27-31 in this video). The most devastating four minutes of all symphonic music ever written — eclipsing even any epic film scores you have ever heard — must surely be when the composer portrays the massacre of the people on the steps of the palace. (Shostakovich was a master of the extended climax in music). Here we see the evil power of the state portrayed to perfection in music. If you play your part as a little pawn and slave you will be loved-up by the state. But if you dare to raise issues of justice, speak out against war, highlight oppression, become a whistleblower for truth, you will be calumniated and exterminated. These are recurring themes too. States are very good at wearing a smile (a good icon of that is politicians posing with babies at election time!); but behind that smile there lurks an evil and darkness which will always inevitably reveal itself. You may imagine you live in a (pseudo) “democracy” right now; but just wait for the darkness to reveal itself in all its crude ugliness, as it inevitably will in the not-too-distant future — even in these so-called “civilised” countries.

Shostakovich’s massive epic 11th Symphony is a wake-up call about the use of state power in all its evil and was deliberately composed that way. Throughout the symphony, Shostakovich makes use of well-known folk songs which depict political oppression. In the last movement, we can detect the song “Tremble, Tyrants!” which contains these words:

“Tremble, tyrants, as you mock us! Threaten us with jail and manacles! We are free in spirit, even if our bodies are not, Shame on you, you tyrants! Shame!”

In the original score, the descriptive label he gave to that last movement in the symphony was “Tocsin”, which is an expressive word meaning alarm bell or warning. At the end of the symphony, real bells chime out that warning in epic fashion. O THOSE BELLS! Every time I have previously heard this symphony, they have used tubular bells. In this version, they use actual church bells in the middle of the orchestra, which produces exactly the right effect. My mouth dropped open as the first chime went right through me. Tocsin indeed! A warning of warnings. In this symphony, Shostakovich was essentially saying “The kind of evil which happened in 1905 has happened before and many times since… and it will happen again unless you wake up out of your dumb sleep to truth and reality”. Thus, this is very much a symphony for our times.

I know that many are not used to listening to a piece of classical music for a whole hour. But if we come to such music as if it was a guided meditation and allow its magic to work on us as, it will do its immense work of change within. Shostakovich wrote his music to change people. This symphony has often been described as “a film score without a film”, meaning that it is very evocative and stimulating to the imagination. It is like watching an epic movie in one’s mind. Shostakovich had the powerful ability to depict both severe darkness and great beauty in his music. After all, he had lived it. His life was continually under threat from “the 3 o’clock knock” from the secret police. He found his redemption through creating his music, which is only now beginning to be properly understood. (He encoded a great deal in his music and there’s a lot of fun in cracking the codes 🙂 ). Until a few years ago, his 11th Symphony would very rarely be heard in concert halls. Now it has finally been recognised for the masterpiece that it is. I can say that it is my favourite of all his symphonies (alongside his 4th).

The YouTube video above is of the Danish conductor, Thomas Søndergård, conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the London Promenade Concerts in 2013. It is an absolutely stunning performance — devastating even. The power and momentum are relentless. The orchestra really pulls out all the stops. You know where this is going right from the start. Without a doubt, Søndergård “gets” Shostakovich. I believe that what the composer intended in the music is channelled perfectly through him. All I can say is that THIS IS TRULY A PROPHETIC SYMPHONY WHICH PORTRAYS IN OVERWHELMING FASHION THE BATTLE BETWEEN DARKNESS AND LIGHT AND THE WAY THAT HISTORY HAS TO REPEAT ITSELF UNTIL PEOPLE GET THE MESSAGE.

Until we understand darkness, we will never fully be able to absorb light. Does that sound like an impossible riddle? After all, so many people run away from the least mention of anything dark and insist that we must only ever think about “happy”, seemingly positive things. But the conundrum is that there has to be the possibility of darkness so that the light can prevail. Out of darkness comes light. The Light speaks through the darkness and nullifies it. Until one grasps that mighty reality one will only skim the surface in life, clutching onto straws and fantasies, living in the streetcar of unfulfilled desire, dodging shadows and snowballs made from black ice — never finding and demolishing one’s own inescapable darkness. The whole of life and material history, from beginning to end, is one vast movement from darkness to light. As I write these words and listen to this astonishing music, I am overwhelmed with its ominous power! Tears flow. Creativity is unharnessed. Flowers grow in my heart and a smile stretches from here to eternity! Remember this: “In the absence of Light, darkness prevails”.

May we learn the lessons of this music, bow towards the Light, develop courage and be afraid of nothing.

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© Alan Morrison, 2017

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