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About this Piece

Composed: 1955-57

Length: 60 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, field drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), harp, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 20, 1998, Yakov Kreizberg conducting

In a life of extreme ups and downs, Shostakovich wrote his Eleventh Symphony in a time full of both. In 1948 he and other prominent Soviet composers had been attacked at a Congress of Soviet Composers for being elitist and "formalist." He was vilified and fired from his Moscow and Leningrad Conservatory professorships, and most of his concert music was banned. Stalin himself lifted the ban after only a year, and Shostakovich went from being an official pariah to being merely controversial, the inevitable focus of any debate about Soviet aesthetics. Nonetheless, in 1951 he was re-elected as a representative of his Leningrad district in the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic, and honors flowed in after Stalin died in 1953. Shostakovich was named "People's Artist of the USSR" in 1954 and was awarded the Order of Lenin, the USSR's highest decoration, on his 50th birthday in 1956.

Even as his professional fortunes rose, his personal life was tragic and confused. His wife died in 1954, leaving him a single parent of two teenagers. He married a woman he scarcely knew - a Communist Party youth wing organizer nearly 20 years his junior - in 1956. They divorced in 1959.

Controversial or not, Shostakovich was an important figure and his activities always made news. In 1955 he publicly announced that he was writing a symphony commemorating the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when Czarist troops massacred peasants in a peaceful protest before the Imperial Palace in January 1905, causing a reaction that became the Russian Revolution. Shostakovich made little progress on the work until 1957, when he announced, a bit incongruously, that he was writing a symphony about 1905 in honor of the 40th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution that ushered in the Soviet state. It premiered that fall.

The Symphony is vividly and specifically programmatic, and it isn't hard to hear the gist of the plot. But Shostakovich also wove into it songs that would have been familiar to a Russian listener in the 1950s, and, not incidentally, would have pleased the official critics who thought Soviet music should be based on folk song. The allusions are lost on most of us.

An eyewitness to Bloody Sunday wrote that the gathered people waited for hours on a freezing January morning in the palace square for the Czar to appear. He did not. Instead, they heard a bugle call, "which rang on with unusual resonance and clarity in the freezing air." Then soldiers appeared and the killing began.

The Symphony's movements follow each other without pause. The entire first movement depicts the people waiting, palpably still, in the cold. The fatal bugle call sounds on the trumpet, and then the horn. Flutes introduce "Listen," a song about the misery of not being free. The movement also uses a song called "The Convict," first played in the low strings, and the hymn "Lord, Have Mercy on Us."

The second movement depicts the actual massacre. The theme that dominates is not a folk song, but Shostakovich's own melody from his 1951 Ten Choral Poems on Revolutionary Texts.

The quiet of the first movement returns, and then a slow pizzicato in the low strings starts the funeral march third movement. Muted violas introduce "You Fell as Victims," a song written for the Bloody Sunday dead, and one of Lenin's favorite songs. The powerful middle section is based on "Greetings to You, Unfettered Freedom."

The "Alarm Bell" finale portrays reaction and the coming storm. It quotes not only the Russian revolutionary song "Rage, Tyrants," but also a song of the Poles who resisted Russian annexation in 1863. It also incorporates themes from earlier movements, most strikingly after the long English horn solo, when the bass clarinet brings back the Shostakovich song from the second movement in particularly sinister fashion.

Coming as it did after the Soviet Union had brutally repressed the Hungarian uprising in November 1956, the Symphony struck some listeners as being as much about 1956 as 1905, despite the specificity of the music (though the use of a Polish resistance song might support the notion). Others heard nothing contemporary in it: dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn even complained that Shostakovich was wrong to make historical, patriotic use of "Listen" without understanding how it was being sung in Soviet prison camps in the 1950s. Years later Shostakovich hinted to a colleague that it was significant that the Symphony was written in the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising, but he was never more specific about it (the words put in his mouth by the author of a controversial posthumous "memoir" notwithstanding), and ultimately, of course, the music has to stand on its own.

- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Coleman Chamber Concerts and the Salzburg Festival.