Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905" by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Why yes he does look
like Harry Potter!
The summer of 1998, which I spent up at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan was sort of my "Summer of Shostakovich." I still remember hearing this work for the first time. It was performed by the World Youth Symphony, a simply MASSIVE orchestra made up of the top students of the camp. I wasn't sure what to expect but I ended up spending most of the time on the edge of my seat (quite literally). I was nearly breathless by the time the work was done. It became an instant favourite.

The work is a program symphony (a multi-movement work that tells some sort of story) and is based on the 1905 Russian revolution. Some call this work "a film score without a film" and it certainly seems apt, especially as the composer did write several film scores. This is truly one of those works where you have to know the program in order to understand what is going on.

Movement I (The Palace Square) depicts the the Palace Square before the a group of striking workers and their family descended on it. That day (January 22, 1905), groups of workers gathered around the city. Holding religious icons and singing hymns and patriotic songs, they marched to the square to present a petition to the Tsar (complaining about the government's increased inefficiency, corruption, and harsh ways). Palace guards were told to only allow them so far. The movement is quiet and yet ominous all at the same time. It sets your hair on edge.

Movement II (The 9th of January) depicts the events of Bloody Sunday, directly following on the heels of the events in the first movement. (The 9th, btw is in the old style calendar, what we could now call the 22nd). Once the workers reached the Palace Square, the guards fired warning shots into the air and when that didn't deter them, they shot into the unarmed, peaceful crowd. Official records say that 96 were dead and 333 injured though unofficial anti-government reports put the number much higher than that. More moderate estimates put the number at around 1000 wounded or dead, including some who were trampled in the panic after the shooting began. I like this description from Wikipedia: This first section is busy and constantly moves forward. It builds to two steep climaxes, then recedes into a steep, frozen calm in the prolonged piccolo and flute melodies, underscored again with distant brass. Another full orchestra buildup launches into a pounding march, in a burst from the snare drum like gunfire and fugal strings, as the troops descend on the crowd. This breaks out into an intense section of relentless strings, and trombone and tuba glissandos procure a nauseating sound underneath the panic and the troops' advance on the crowd. Then comes a section of mechanical, heavily repetitive snare drum, bass drum, timpani, and tam-tam solo before the entire percussion sections breaks off at once. Numbness sets in with a section reminiscent of the first movement.

Movement III (Eternal Memory) is a lament on the violence.

Movement IV (Tocsin) is a march which reaches a violent climax before returning to the material from the opening of the symphony. At the end, the the tocsin (warning bell) rings out a harsh G minor chord while the orchestra attempts to counteract with G major. It ends with just the note G. Neither party wins. Ultimately this is meant to foreshadow the 1917 Revolution.

You can listen to the entire work here if you're up for a full length hour long symphony.

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