Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, written in 1957 to mark the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, had a mixed reception. Soviet officialdom praised it as a fine example of ‘socialist realism’ and awarded the composer a Lenin Prize; dissident Russians found it far too ‘official’; Western critics damned it as glorified film music. In the years since Shostakovich’s death, however, the Eleventh Symphony has come to be considered in a very different light: not as an ‘official’ work written to satisfy the Soviet authorities, but a deeply moving reflection on Russian history.
The Symphony commemorates the events that led up to the first Russian Revolution. While Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers maintained the principle of rigid autocracy, Russian life was increasingly riddled with incompetence, corruption and oppression. On 9 January 1905 a huge demonstration of workers and their families converged on the square in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. They carried a respectfully worded petition, and icons and portraits of the Tsar. Troops opened fire on the defenceless crowd and hundreds were killed.
Shostakovich’s reflections on this episode are repor- ted by Solomon Volkov in his controversial memoir, Testimony. ‘I think that it was a turning point – the people stopped believing in the Tsar. The Russian people are always like that – they believe and they believe and then suddenly it comes to an end. And the ones the people no longer believe in come to a bad end. [...] I think that many things repeat themselves in Russian history. [...] The people think and act similarly in many things. This is evident, for example, if you study Mussorgsky or read War and Peace. I wanted to show this recurrence in the Eleventh Symphony. I wrote it in 1957 and it deals with contemporary themes even though it’s called ‘1905’. It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.