A petition. A simple piece of paper was the trigger. Ten thousands of Russian workers claimed the rights that the government had promised them two months before. They were hungry and underfed. In January 1905, they marched towards the Winter Palace of Nicolas II outside St. Petersburg, and while they marched, they prayed and sang. They were led by an Orthodox priest. But the Czar’s soldiers drowned the peaceful march in blood. Nicolas II. was afraid. The world was changing and he did not accept change. His soldiers were afraid. The once glorious army had lost the Crimean War and the war against Japan. The country was in uproar.
Change. Mankind doesn’t like change. It is painful. It is frightening. When we loose our bearings, when familiar landmarks vanish, we feel insecure. And when we feel insecure, our basic instincts come into play: We become hunted animals and either we freeze, we flee or we fight. Animals. We aren’t animals, are we? Nature has given us a brain to overcome our basic instincts. We can manage change. Nicolas II didn’t. He died in 1918 at the hands of Bolshevik revolutionaries.
As we have seen, the composer Dmitry Shostakovich had to manage change constantly over his career in the Soviet Union. The power that party officials wielded over artists put them in a permanent dilemma: creativity versus liberty, artistic expression versus material support. In 1957, the Soviet Union was facing a change: The Secretary General of the Communist party, Nikita Khrushchev, had initiated a partial liberalization: Stalin’s crimes were exposed, political prisoners released, censure eased and in foreign politics, Khrushchev advocated de-escalation with the West.
In 1957, Shostakovich wrote a monumental symphony commemorating the Revolution of 1905: Symphony No. 11 in G Minor, op. 103. “I love this period in the history of our Motherland, which found clear expression in workers’ revolutionary songs”, he wrote in an autobiographical sketch after he had turned 50. And he leaned heavily on the legacy of Russian revolutionary songs.
A hidden message?
The symphony is written in four movements: the Palace Square, Ninth of January, Eternal Memory, Alarm. Their titles clearly indicated what Shostakovich had in mind. You will hear a dark theme, the foreboding of the revolution and a bow to Beethoven’s Fifth’s. You will hear the shooting of soldiers and their drumming. You will hear a mourning and consoling adagio and the cry for revenge. And finally the triumphant revolutionary workers. Monumental. Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra have recorded the symphony. The recording is monumental too.
The symphony was completed by the summer of 1957 and first performed in October 1957. A year earlier, Soviet troops had crushed the peaceful uprising in Hungary. Thousands died, many more fled. Tyranny and violence are universal experiences. They are also a pervasive theme of Shostakovich’s music. A hidden message? Perhaps. 1957 was the year of change. Many things became possible.
© Charles Thibo