Mark Wigglesworth

Shostakovich Symphony No.11

Mark’s notes on Shostakovich Symphony No. 11



On the morning of Sunday 9th January 1905, thousands of Russians gathered in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The country’s economy was in dire straits; and yet despite extreme poverty and hardship, the assembled crowd had no intention of anything other than presenting their government with a peaceful petition. They were simply asking to have their grievances heard and not only did they expect to be received with respect and maybe even kindness, but genuinely believed that the Tsar would be able help. Many of them had huge regard for him; they even sang ‘God Save the Tsar’.

No one will know what would have happened had an unnecessarily apprehensive Tsar Nicholas II not made the tragic mistake of deciding at the last minute to leave the city in advance of the demonstration. In his absence the people grew restless and, when the police ordered them to disperse, confusion arose, and a group of young and nervous Cossack troops suddenly opened fire. In the ensuing chaos, over a thousand men, women, and children were mown down by gunfire. The snow turned red with the blood that was spilled.

One who survived was Dmitri Boleslavich Shostakovich, and his son Dmitri Dmitriyevich was born the following year. The massacre was frequently discussed in the young composer’s home, and its unprovoked brutality left an indelible impression on the young and sensitive child. In Testimony, the book published in 1979 by Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich is quoted as follows:

‘Our family discussed the Revolution of 1905 constantly… the stories 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 time to be frightened.’

It would therefore have been with understandably mixed feelings that fifty years later the celebrated composer accepted a commission from the Soviet authorities to write a symphony commemorating the event, and it is not surprising that it took him a while to start its composition. It was perhaps events outside Russia that in the end stimulated him to begin work.

On 25th October 1956, a build-up of local protests resulted in thousands of Hungarians amassing in Budapest’s Parliament Square to demonstrate against their government. The puppet régime that the Soviet Union had installed there was particularly oppressive. Random abductions, false imprisonment, and forced confessions equalled those of Stalin’s Russia, and rough estimates say that over ten percent of the population had passed through the country’s torture chambers and prison camps at some point since the Second World War.

When the secret police turned their machine guns on the crowd, leaving an estimated six hundred dead, Soviet tanks had to be sent in to put down the uprising that followed. No one was more horrified than Shostakovich at the depressing repetition of events that this seemed to exemplify and it was not hard to draw parallels between Budapest in 1956 and St Petersburg in 1905. A similarly courageous struggle for a just cause won the protesting Hungarians many tacit supporters back in Russia.

But tacit, of course, is what such support had to be. Despite Stalin’s death in 1953 and the undoubted ‘thaw’ that had followed, there was no lessening of the risk incurred by suggesting that the Soviet reaction in Hungary was heavy-handed and over the top. In appearing to describe a similar uprising of fifty years before, Shostakovich was able to express his current sympathies without upsetting anyone in the government.

Yet it was not that difficult for anyone who wanted to draw comparisons between both atrocities to be stimulated to do so on listening to the symphony. After the première an elderly lady was overheard saying: ‘Those aren’t guns firing, they are tanks roaring, and people being squashed.’ And when this was related to Shostakovich, he is reported to have replied: ‘That means she understood it.’ Even the composer’s own son apparently asked his father: ‘Papa, what if they hang you for this?’ But he was not hanged. In fact the work was a huge success and resulted in a Lenin Prize for the composer the following year. It is ironic that the symphony should have been so praised by a régime that it was probably secretly denigrating.

It makes sense for a work that is essentially about the spirit of revolution, albeit a failed one, to have as its musical basis several revolutionary songs – all of which would have been extremely well-known to contemporary Russians. This was music that Shostakovich grew up singing as a child, and the texts would have been so familiar to his audience that he did not feel any need to have them articulated by voices. It raises the question as to whether a non-Russian can relate to the symphony in the same way. The answer is probably not, but the simplicity and power of the melodies themselves certainly evoke the right emotion, even if it is experienced away from the specific context of twentieth-century Russian history.

Played without a pause, the symphony’s four movements are all given titles by the composer. Palace Square serves as a slow introduction: its cold and desolate vastness depict the snow-covered square at daybreak; ominous timpani strokes fatefully suggest an uneasy calm, whilst distant brass fanfares evoke the soldiers’ early morning ‘reveille’. As the sun rises, the melodies of two revolutionary songs emerge. Listen! and The Prisoner were both well-known to prisoners trying to come to terms with the slow pace of time whilst in captivity, with only the crying of fellow inmates to keep them company during the long dark nights.

Entitled The Ninth of January, the following Allegro cinematically depicts the crowd, at first calm, then gradually giving way to more impassioned pleas for help. But these receive no answer, and we sense the people’s dejected frustration: a silent stillness that is suddenly interrupted by the sound of rifling drum shots, as seemingly unprovoked and unexpected as, by all accounts, the real gunfire was in 1905. The confusion and panic in the music is unmistakable, as is the hollow and ghostly emptiness of the terrifying quiet of the now lifeless, body-strewn square with which the movement ends.

The third movement, an Adagio headed In Memoriam, laments those who lost their lives in the atrocity. Sometimes resigned and sad, in other places angry and defiant, it is based on the revolutionary funeral march You fell as victims, with un-selfish love for the people, a song that was heard at Lenin’s funeral in 1924.

The finale, Tocsin (an alarm or warning bell), is a gesture of defiance on the part of the survivors and on behalf of those who gave their lives in resistance. In anticipation of future uprisings, it uses the songs Tremble, Tyrants and Whirlwinds of Danger to predict an ultimate victory for the revolutionaries. These texts are translated below.

Whether or not ‘the ultimate victory’ as manifested in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was something to glorify is left unanswered by the composer. Though the ringing bells that close the work suggest a certain triumph, they sound hollow in the context of a resilient G minor tonality, and it could hardly be called an optimistic ending to what is a very dark and brooding symphony as a whole. All revolution is essentially tragic, just as all war is basically civil war, and no bloodshed at any time, or any place, can ever be something to celebrate. Shostakovich elaborated on the depressing nature of recurrence in Testimony:

‘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. That’s how the impressions of my childhood and my adult life come together. And naturally, the events of my mature years are more meaningful.’

Ultimately, the debate about whether Shostakovich is portraying the heroism of Russians in 1905 or Hungarians in 1956 is irrelevant. It does not matter whether he is attacking the violence of Cossack troops or the aggression of Red Army tanks. What is clear is his obvious empathy with all who try to rise up against tyranny and his passionate antipathy towards all who oppress them. The symphony may on the surface be a costume drama, but it is one that still resonates today. In the end, Shostakovich writes about emotions and states of mind, rather than specific dates, and even if he does use facts as his focus, they are invariably symbols for universal sentiments. That is why his music remains both timeless and topical.

© Mark Wigglesworth 2009

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!


Whirlwinds of danger are raging around us,
O’erwhelming forces of darkness assail.
Still in the fight see advancing before us,
Red flag of liberty that yet shall prevail.

Then forward, ye workers, freedom awaits you,
O’er all the world on the land and the sea.
On with the fight for the cause of humanity,
March, march ye toilers and the world shall be free!

Women and children in hunger are calling,
Shall we be silent to their sorrow and woe,
While in the fight see our brothers are falling.
Up then united and conquer the foe!

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