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)

1 comment:

  1. Let us suppose that you were a gifted music composer, and a citizen of the People's Republic of Gagaland, the government of which imposed a repressive regime of the utmost severity on its citizens, including a requirement that Gagaland music composers confine themselves to composing Gagaland music. The senior members of the government in general, and the president in particular, claimed the right to decide what qualified as such music, even though those gentlemen had about as much musical discernment as a pig's hind leg.
    Let us further suppose that you bitterly resented the imposition of what you regarded as blatant interference in the natural right of music composers to compose music of their choice, and to strike a blow for freedom, you decided to compose a piece of music which the senior members of the Gagaland government in general, and the president in particular, would believe to be Gagaland music, but which in reality would be anything but.
    To fool the Gagaland government into thinking your composition was Gagaland music, you would give not only the whole work, but each part of it a patriotic sounding title. Furthermore, you would dedicate the work to a glorious victory by the gallant Gagaland armed forces over Gagaland oppressors.
    However, the first few bars of your work would be a paraphrase of the introduction to a well known piece of Jazz. Virtually the whole of the first movement and long sections of the other movements would then consist of variations on the theme of that piece of Jazz.
    Of course, you could be quite sure that the senior members of the government of Gagaland in general, and the president in particular would never notice, and if anyone else did, they would deem it best for their continued good health to keep quiet about it.
    If you were that person, your name would be Shostakovich, and you would call your composition Symphony No. 11.