Monday, October 16, 2006

After The Elliott Carter World Premiere, The Shostakovich Centennial Resumes: A Symphony Of Czarist And Soviet Slaughter, 1905 And 1956?

... "It comes as no surprise that a symphony with so charged a content should have had a mixed reputation, and the [Dmitri Shostakovich] Eleventh Symphony ["The Year 1905"] in particular was caught between the political winds that blew through the last century. Ideological communist critics were ecstatic, hailing it as Shostakovich’s finest symphony since his wartime “Leningrad” Symphony. Ideological Western critics, uncomfortable with the subject, attacked the symphony for its popular idiom, sneering that it was mere “movie music.”

Actually, the Eleventh is quite impressive as a piece of symphonic music, and in the debate over content it has been easy to overlook the sureness of Shostakovich’s technique. This is not a matter of using revolutionary songs or the vivid pictorial element, but rather of Shostakovich’s ability to unify this hour-long symphony around one seminal motto-theme, which is announced in the first moments (in a striking touch) by solo timpani and which then reappears in various ways throughout the symphony. Shostakovich’s ability to generate atmosphere is evident in the first instants of the opening movement, The Palace Square, a description of the square where the massacre took place. This portrait of a frozen, misty winter morning is done perfectly with the icy sound of harp and muted strings–Shostakovich achieves here a sense of space and quiet, but also tension. Very quietly, the timpani taps out the motto-theme that will shape so much of the symphony, and trumpet and horn treat this in turn. Solo flute announces the first revolutionary song, a prison song whose title has been translated variously as “Listen” and “Awake.” This is developed briefly, but the end of the movement returns to the frozen stillness of the beginning.

The second movement, January 9th, depicts the actual massacre. Ominous lower strings sound a transformation of the motto theme. It feels properly threatening here, and it may be easy to miss Shostakovich’s subtle treatment of this theme, particularly in his fluid metrical transformation of it. The theme is heard in both augmentation and diminution (speeded-up and slowed-down), and Shostakovich combines the theme at these different speeds in some impressive counterpoint; later he transforms it into a lovely, haunting melody for violins. A return of the icy music from the very beginning sets the stage for the massacre, and a taut snare drum plunges us into the violence, where the motto is treated fugally. Its violence spent, the movement concludes with a return of the music from the very beginning, now presented in
unsettling trills.

Eternal Memory offers the funeral for the victims. Pizzicato strings precede the entrance of the violas, which sing the revolutionary song “You Fell as Victims.” This grows to a soaring climax, is combined with the motto theme, and falls away to a quiet close. The final movement, Alarm, snaps to life on martial dotted rhythms–the title is a warning to the czar that forces have been unleashed that he will be unable to contain. At the climax of this movement, the motto theme is shouted out triumphantly, and listeners will hear other themes from earlier movements. The long English horn solo reprises “Bare Your Head,” first heard in the second movement, and the movement drives to its powerful close as percussion hammers out the motto-theme rhythm one final time.

How are we to evaluate the Eleventh Symphony, nearly a half-century after it was composed and over a decade after the ignominious collapse of the ideology it celebrates? With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, revisionist Western critics have been quick to pounce on every note Shostakovich wrote, and some of the most extreme of these have suggested that the Eleventh Symphony should be understood not as a depiction of the czar’s slaughter of innocent Russians in 1905 but as a satirical comment on the Russian government’s crushing the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Perhaps the safest course is to divorce this symphony from our awareness of what the Soviet government became and to understand it instead as a portrait of a horrifying moment when innocent citizens were murdered by their own repressive government. Shostakovich’s response to that memory was personal and direct, and the symphony he wrote to commemorate it is better than many have been willing to admit."

Program notes (c) by Eric Bromberger. All rights reserved. Via the Washington Performing Arts Society.


The distinguished Washington Performing Arts Society hosts the Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, under Valery Gergiev, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (not permanently electro-acoustically enhanced, to date) on Wednesday, October 25, 8:00 pm. Limited tickets are still available.


The Kirov Opera (Mariinsky Opera) returns to the Kennedy Center this winter -- January 27 to February 4 -- for performances of three Western operas: Shostakovich's second opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (in concert), Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims, and Verdi's [and Boito's] Falstaff.

Opera, music drama, and song at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Dmitri Shostakovich tombstone, in Russia.

Photo credit: With thanks.


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