28 October 2012

Dmitri Shostakovich - Symphony No.11

I apologise again for a long absence from this blog. For those who didn't know; I recently moved to England to pursue a PhD in philosophy which has been both exciting and exhausting, and obviously very distracting. I'm definitely going to try to post more regularly from now on though.

Right now I want to talk about a piece that I've avoided posting in here for several reasons; Shostakovich's Symphony No.11. It is, together with the 4th, my favourite Shostakovich symphony but not everyone praises it. I've read comments ranging from calling it too cinematographic (yeah, I don't know why that's a bad thing either) to kitschy, from superficial to bland. Basically, a lot of people find it so over-the-top that it loses all emotional impact. It's pretty much the opposite for me, I'd say it's the single most emotionally laden piece of music I know. It reduces me to tears every time I listen to it, and there are two moments in particular that literally make me unable to breathe.

There are many 'objective' features of the symphony that I could argue make it so good; it has some of the most beautiful soft and slow movements of any Shostakovich piece, there's a beautiful balance between the loud and the quiet, the melodies will stay in your head for days, and the ending is quite possibly the best finale Shostakovich ever wrote. But it all comes down to what you feel when you listen to it, so I won't bore you too much with details. Some history of the piece is interesting, though. It was written in 1957, and has as a subtitle "The Year 1905" (thus in memory of the Russian revolution of that year). There are all sorts of rumours about why Shostakovich gave it this subtitle, and indeed many people think that he originally had it as "The Year 1906" - the year of his birth. In a way, the symphony is a requiem which I think makes the ending all the more powerful, the chiming bells are very creepy and ominous.

The four movements have subtitles as well; "The Palace Square", "The Ninth of January", "Eternal Memory" and "The Toscin". The second movement, which is my favourite, refers to Bloody Sunday - when at least 1000 peaceful demonstrators were shot and killed by the Tsar's army. You will hear this in the music - at some point the percussion and brass sections go berserk and then everything is quiet....

If you have 50 minutes to spare, I recommend you listen to this recording, by Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic:

But if you're in a hurry, here are movements 2 and 4.

(stick around until the 13-minute mark, that's when the madness happens)

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