Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Opus 103, "The Year 1905" (1957)
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Evgeny Mravinsky
Revelation RV10091 [60:08/AAD]

Although the sleevenote to this issue pretends that the Eleventh Symphony is, in effect, a guilelessly virtuous piece of Communist musical propaganda unambiguously devoted to homaging the dead of the 1905 revolution, anyone who knows a bit about Soviet history will long ago have sensed from the music itself that something darker and more ironic lies behind it. Semyon Bychkov, who recorded the work in 1988, points out that "events such as those in 1905 have happened elsewhere... Uprisings tend to be similar: people are killed, there's a requiem to be written (you have that in the third movement)". He continues:

What I find really interesting is the finale of the Eleventh. People often think that the finale is about the eventual success of the revolution--not in 1905, but in 1917. But what is meant by "success"? Success to whom, for whom? If it's for a band of criminals who brought nothing but disaster, for them it was success--but for millions of people it was genocide. I think he's talking about that in the finale. There are three notes played by the chimes, alternating between major and minor thirds. It ends with the minor third. Why not a major third if it's a "victory"? I think this is the key element in the piece, because the same intervals are used in the fugue of the first movement, and that describes the assault on those poor people. What kind of victory is that?

Bychkov echoes Shostakovich in Testimony re the Fifth Symphony: "What kind of apotheosis is that?" Indeed, Testimony is where the double-meaning (or, rather, plural meanings) of the Eleventh first explicitly emerged. I explored these ideas about the symphony more fully in The New Shostakovich (pp. 214-219), written in 1988-9. In an article published in the USSR in 1990, the composer's friend Lev Lebedinsky confirmed the Eleventh's latent meanings in some detail. Referring to the revolutionary songs used in the work, Lebedinsky claimed that, whilst undergoing symphonic development, they represent "the main protagonists in a drama... one in which the depicted events are clearly not of the past but very much of the present":

Not everyone grasped the contemporary implications of the Eleventh Symphony. In Russia, it is, after all, common practice for artists to resort to the life-saving language of folk-song. However, the allusion to the tyrant's "night-black" conscience was sufficient to give Shostakovich's quotation an anti-Stalinist inflection, turning the work into a protest against tyranny in general. Though he never knew prison or the camps, the composer was able to recreate the horror and terror of Stalin's Gulag with great power, clarity, and realism. Aside from his own imaginative genius, this was due to the fact that for a number of years, particularly after the death of his close friend Tukhachevsky, he had himself lived in the daily dread of arrest and punishment. From this experience, his keen intuition was able to deduce the camps' peculiar atmosphere; in his mind, he lived in those places, heard their sad songs, felt their seething resentment against all tyranny and repression.

(Shostakovich's friend the musicologist Marina Sabinina agrees. The symphony's third movement, she argues, "could be associated with the mass executions of the Soviet era and Stalin's reprisals, while the first part, with its melodies of pre-revolutionary songs of hard labour and exile, recalls the victims of the Gulag--the millions who perished in concentration camps and prisons".)

More particularly, Lebedinsky confirms the Eleventh Symphony's associative link with another failed revolution--one which had been happening while Shostakovich was forming the music in his mind and very probably inspired it: the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. An event of immense significance to the Soviet Union's contemporary dissident intelligentsia, the tragic unfolding of the Hungarian Uprising was (illegally) monitored by Shostakovich via the BBC's Russian Service. (Flora Litvinova confirms that he was eager for news of events in Budapest in 1956. Indeed, Zoya Tomachevskaya tells us that when Igor Belsky, producer of a ballet on the Eleventh Symphony, consulted Shostakovich, the composer said to him, "as if in passing": "Don't forget that I wrote that symphony in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising.")

Like his dissident colleagues, who identified with their counterparts in Hungary, the composer was almost certainly struck by the grim parallel between St Petersburg's Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905 and Budapest's Parliament Square massacre in 1956. In 1956, of course, the massacring forces were Soviet, representing the system which Shostakovich (contrary to the resident sleevenote writer for the Revelation series) had detested for many years and fervently wished to see the back of. Lev Lebedinsky is quite specific about this: "The Eleventh Symphony can justly be called a product of the anti-totalitarian liberation movement in the USSR. As such, as well as evidencing Shostakovich's talent and mastery, it also testifies to his courage and intelligence." (Lebedinsky's use of the words "courage" and "intelligence" is far from casual. Anyone seeking to penetrate deeper into Shostakovich's music should bear both words in mind--in particular when weighing the anti-revisionist counter-image of him as cowardly and not very bright.)

For Lebedinsky, the Eleventh, far from a mere historical pageant, was "a truly contemporary work... composed in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary"--although, he says, the work's "true programme" had to be "deliberately concealed" by Shostakovich "beneath a kind of 'period costume'":

Did the composer hide the contemporary meaning of his symphony too carefully to make it generally detectable? Hardly--although there were plenty of sharp-witted people in Moscow and Leningrad who were probably too scared to admit the truth. "Those weren't rifle shots--those were tanks roaring and people being machine-gunned," remarked an old lady loudly after the symphony's première in Leningrad. And she was right. In the symphony's second movement (The Ninth of January), Shostakovich, with immense orchestral mastery, reproduces the roar of engines and clatter of tank-tracks--sounds strongly suggestive of the massacre during the 1956 uprising in Budapest... This was so clear to those "who had ears to listen", that his son, with whom he wasn't in the habit of sharing his deepest thoughts, whispered to Dmitri Dmitriyevich during the dress rehearsals, "Papa, what if they hang you for this?"

Lebedinsky's article caused a minor scuffle in the Russian musical press in 1991. Lev Levitin claimed, in roundly abusive terms, that Lebedinsky's suggestion was simplistic and "one-dimensional". In turn, the musicologist Lev Mazel chided Levitin for his intemperate outburst and proposed that, while Lebedinsky had perhaps replaced one simplistic interpretation with another, his basic claim about the dual historical resonance of the symphony was justifiable. The work, Mazel continued, was "inspired by tragic contemporary events--and it is arguably this inspiration which gives the symphony its true meaning and substance". ("This," he added, "is, in fact, how I understood the symphony from the very start. I did not ask 'was there more 1905 or 1956' in it; the various aspects of an artistic work as a whole do not require quantitative equations.")

Manashir Yakubov, the keeper of the Shostakovich archive in Russia, cautiously agrees with Mazel: "It is quite possible that while Shostakovich was writing his Eleventh Symphony that he was thinking of not only the 1905 revolution. Probably he hoped that his audience would hear beyond the generalised pictures of violence and the people's suffering something other than what communist ideologists wanted to hear." The conductor Kirill Kondrashin, equally circumspect (though, writing in 1980, for a different reason), likewise points out that both the Eleventh and Twelfth symphonies are "associative as well as illustrative; that is, they throw out a bridge between historical events and the present". As for the musicologist Vera Volkova, hearing the Eleventh for the first time as a teenager in 1964, she records that "people were crying at the concerts, for the first time perceiving without prejudice or doubt the tragic revelations of the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh symphonies. Liberated from prohibition, Shostakovich's music became a symbol of the severe truth of our time..."

The sheer passion of the performance contained in this 1960 recording supports the "Hungarian" thesis. It is undeniable that 1905 was significant for Russia in several ways, not least in poignantly suggesting a more decent sort of freedom which the nation might have achieved without having to suffer Lenin's red fascism. Even at a distance of fifty years, it was still an emotional subject for Russians in 1956, especially to the liberal intelligentsia who, so far as as possible, had always resisted Soviet communism and had then just seen Stalin's reign of terror formally condemned by Khrushchev. Yet the Hungarian Uprising was far more immediate in its impact; in fact, it was the catalyst for the open dissidence which began to manifest in the USSR around the time of this recording. One of those dissidents, Vladimir Bukovsky, describes what the events in Hungary meant to his contemporaries in 1956:

After all the exposures, denunciations, and posthumous rehabilitations [of the 1956 thaw], after all the assurances about the impossibility of repeating the past, we were now presented with corpses, tanks, brute force and lies all over again. Just one more convincing proof that nothing had changed at all. Boys just like us, fifteen or sixteen years old, were perishing on the streets of Budapest, rifles in hand, in defence of freedom... On the one side there was our side--the Russians, who were being cold-bloodedly sent in to kill. And on the other there was also our side, for I would have done exactly the same thing if I had been in the place of those young Hungarians... After those red-starred tanks, the pride and joy of our childhood, had crushed our peers on the streets of Budapest, a bloody fog blinded our eyes. The whole world had betrayed us, and we believed in nobody.

A recent parallel can be drawn with the mood in China after the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989. With an equivalent feeling abroad in Russia in 1956-7, it is inconceivable that a piece of sound-painting as naturalistic as the massacre in the second movement of Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony could have struck its early audiences as mere coincidence. Thus the exceptional intensity of feeling in this performance, as in many historical Shostakovich recordings, derives not merely from the innate excitement of being close to the time of composition of the music, but rather from closeness to the contemporary events which precipitated the composition itself.

This is the third Mravinsky-conducted Eleventh to have appeared on compact disc. The first, the Leningrad première of 3rd November 1957, which came out on Russian Disc (RDCD11157) four years ago, is unusual in being a first outing which in Mravinsky's hands doesn't succeed. The white-hot passion is there, but his usual cogency isn't--particularly in a rather disorganised third movement--and, in general, the impression is of a work quickly learned and, as yet, only partially absorbed. (Compounded by mono sound that scrunches up the tuttis and lacks body even in the quieter passages, this makes for a disc of mainly archival interest.)

The second of Mravinsky's Elevenths is a performance recorded in Prague in 1967--a reading very similar to the one contained in the present disc and in superior sound (Praga PR 254018). This new one, made in 1960, is supposedly the one issued, on two LPs, along with the composer's recording of his Second Piano Concerto with Alexandr Gauk, on MK in 1961. I bought this in 1963--I can still smell the fishpaste glue which held the big green box together--and it doesn't sound the same to me today. The overwhelming forcefulness of the music-making is identical, or seems so (I had to sell my MK box in order to eat in 1968 and have never found it again since). The sound, on the other hand, is fairly testing--although anyone who can cope with the sonics of Mravinsky's 1954 recording of the Tenth (and only vapid hi-fi buffs can't) will be able to tolerate these raging "peaks" and fiercely "toppy" frequencies. In any case, the disc is an essential part of a Shostakovich fan's collection for the window it opens onto the emotional/intellectual background to this controversial symphony, as well as for preserving what remains arguably its greatest musical interpretation for the enlightenment of generations to come.

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