On April 23, the NEC Philharmonia makes its first trip to Boston's Symphony Hall since 2010. Four years ago, the concert program featured Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. For this return visit, NEC's Calderwood Director of Orchestras Hugh Wolff has programmed another work by Shostakovich that speaks to the theme of Music: Truth to Power that has informed many of our concerts this season. In these notes, Wolff writes about the history behind the music.
In Place of Triumphalism,
the Struggle against Tyranny
At New England Conservatory this year, we’ve been exploring the relationship between art and authority under the rubric "Music Speaks Truth to Power." Tonight’s program features two works that strive to express the struggle for freedom of those under tyranny. For both Ludwig van Beethoven and Dmitri Shostakovich this was personal.
An early admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte as the man who would save Europe from its corrupt and sclerotic monarchies, Beethoven famously struck Bonaparte’s name from the Eroica symphony when the French general declared himself emperor. In late 1809, after defeating the Austrian army, French troops were, for the second time in five years, occupying Vienna. During the occupation, Beethoven wrote incidental music for a production of Goethe’s 1787 play Egmont, by then a classic of political liberation literature. It’s the story of Count Egmont, a 16th-century Flemish patriot, who resisted Spanish rule in the Netherlands and paid with his life, but not before predicting the demise of the Spanish empire. The play surely resonated with a population living under occupation. Beethoven is at his best in this music—the powerful overture bristles with aggressive music depicting the Spanish occupiers, answered by pleading or heroic phrases of the Flemish patriots. Egmont’s execution is graphically portrayed by a sharp two-note gesture in the violins. After a moment of stunned silence, a hushed transition in the woodwinds ushers in a coda of liberation music. The overture ends in wild swirls of triumphant F major.
Dmitri Shostakovich, when asked in 1957 to write a symphony commemorating the 1917 October Revolution that swept the Tsar out and the communists into power, chose instead to write about the 1905 uprising against the Tsar. This was a deft maneuver—his subject would please the authorities, but he could avoid the triumphalism that a work about 1917 would require. As so often in Shostakovich’s music, the message could be heard on two levels: the authorities heard music that portrayed the 1905 revolutionaries as heroes, while dissidents and intellectuals (and anyone with a keen ear and sense of history) could hear music that expressed the bitterness of a failed struggle against tyranny, with no small amount of violent repression. That Shostakovich wrote this symphony immediately after the Soviets suppressed the 1956 popular uprising in Hungary underscored its relevance.
Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905,” is a vast cinematic canvas, an hour of uninterrupted music, that quotes songs every Soviet citizen of the time recognized—songs of the anti-Tsarists of 1905, whose words surely spoke just as clearly to survivors of Stalin’s brutal regime. Each movement features a different song:
First movement: Listen: the autumn night is black as treason, black as the tyrant’s conscience. Blacker than that night, a terrible vision rises through the fog: prison.
Second movement: O Tsar, our dear father! Look around you: life is impossible for us because of your henchmen, against whom we are helpless.
Third movement: You fell as heroes.
Fourth movement: Rage, you tyrants—mock us and threaten us with prison and chains. We are strong in spirit, if weak in body. Shame on you tyrants!
Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet who lost one husband to the regime’s executioners and a son and a second husband to years in the Gulag, called these songs, after hearing the premiere of the symphony, “white birds against a terrible black sky.”
The symphony opens with hushed, icy strings and harps. The sense of foreboding is heightened by throbbing timpani and distant brass fanfares. The subtitle Palace Square sets the scene: this is the square in front of the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, January 1905. The second movement, The 9th of January (the morning a procession of workers fatally gathered in Palace Square to deliver a petition to the Tsar), begins with frantic pianissimo figures in the low strings and the song “O Tsar, our dear father” in the low woodwinds. This moves through two huge waves of intensity, then subsides. The snare drum interrupts and an epic struggle ensues, reaching a peak of savage violence representing the Tsar’s troops’ attack on the petitioners. After the last remorseless drum stroke, the air clears, revealing the strings, harp, and celesta recalling the symphony’s hushed opening. This leads into the third movement, In Memoriam, a solemn dirge for those killed, with violas playing “You fell as heroes.” A martial motif in the brass announces the finale, The Alarm Bell. In this movement, the revolutionary songs come close to triumph (as did the revolutionaries later in 1905) before the brass and percussion obliterate all resistance. As the sound dissipates, quiet strings and harps emerge once again. A lonely English horn laments before the alarm bell propels the symphony to its demonic conclusion. Shostakovich called the bell “a reminder that there are powers mightier than men, that you cannot escape the judgment of history.”
It was during 1917, the year of the Russian revolution, that Prokofiev wrote his Violin Concerto No. 1. With Russia’s future uncertain, the following year Prokofiev headed to America via Vladivostok, Japan, and the Pacific. From there he went to Europe, settling in Paris in 1923, where the concerto received its belated premiere. The Parisian public, eager for shock and scandal, found the work a bit tame. Only after the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti began to champion it, did the concerto win wide admiration. Szigeti wrote that this concerto fascinated him with its “mixture of fairy‑tale naïveté and daring savagery.” An exquisite melody in the solo violin sets the lyrical tone of the first movement. The second movement is a driven, flashy scherzo. A more complex finale leads back to the serenity of the concerto’s opening melody, and the music ends with gently rising D major roulades.