Saturday, July 26, 2008

Shostakovich: Symphony #11

After learning about Dmitri Shostakovich's life, the poverty and ill-health of his youth, the ideological struggles he had with the Soviet regime (particularly under Stalin), and the general overall misery of his life, I was really looking forward to tackling his Eleventh Symphony.
Mstislav Rostropovich and the London Symphony Orchestra
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Symphony 11: The Year 1905
London Symphony Orchestra (Live Recording), 2002

It was a letdown.

This symphony, written on the 40th anniversary of the 1917 revolution in Russia, commemorates the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 9th, 1905, when some 200,000 workers, peacefully demonstrating for better working conditions, were fired on by Tsarist troops.

I can see why some critics have derided this symphony as a glorified film soundtrack. Even the (surprisingly coherently written) liner notes accompanying this CD sound a bit defensive on this point:

"This is a symphony, not a soundtrack....[with] purely musical validity."

But I'll confess that it was about seven minutes into the second movement when this symphony started to sound self-indulgent to me--the auditory equivalent of the director's cut of Apocalypse Now. And there were points throughout this work where I felt I was listening to a medley, not a holistic symphony.

I guess I'll just have to save my anticipation for Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony.

Listener notes on Shostakovich's Symphony #11:
1) Have you ever been more creeped out by the first two minutes of a symphony? And after the first movement, I'm literally stressed out and dying to know what's going to happen.

2) The quality of this performance is exceptional, particularly considering that it was recorded live. Unlike Americans, those courteous English symphony-goers must come to the symphony armed with plenty of cough drops.

3) In the second movement, beginning at about the 10:50 mark, listen to the piccolo solo. He goes more and more off-key as the part progresses. And then, at the 11:45 mark, he actually attempts to play a phrase that's more than 25 seconds long in one breath! Needless to say he lasts about 15 seconds before he gracelessly drops out and reenters. I know this is a live recording, but that's a high-school error. Oh, and how can I tell that this piccolo player is a he? Because a female piccolo player would have used discretion and taken a breath earlier.

4) In the last four minutes or so of the second movement, listen for the extra wide vibrato/tremolo by the strings, underneath the orchestra. It sounds just like human voices. Eerie and creepy.

5) Speaking of self-indulgent: in the third movement, beginning at about 8:28, the strings build up to perhaps the most overwrought moments of the entire symphony: minutes 9 and 10 of the third movement. But there are some spectacular trumpet parts right here, so I'll give Shostakovich a free pathos pass.

6) The opening of the fourth movement will snap you out of your somnolence. And enjoy the bouncing, rhythmic string parts beginning at about the 3:00 minute mark. They really move you along, don't they? Toe-tapping.

7) Listen to the fourth movement from about 5:40 where the entire brass section blasts away while the strings are going crazy with trills. And then, at 6:40 or so, we're off on a totally new and unrelated musical theme. That's a perfect example of what I mean when I say Shostakovich's Eleventh sounds more like a medley than a symphony. For a sharp contrast, listen to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. You'll hear a much more effective composition that commemorates and evokes powerful historical images, yet manages to remain a holistic work.

8) Ah yes, of course--a gong. In the fourth movement, at about the 8:50 mark. You just had to expect a big gong part coming at some point in this symphony, didn't you?

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Chantal said...

I can certainly understand why some people consider this work like a soundtrack. Nevertheless, I really enjoy Shosty's 11th symphony. I remember the first time I ever heard it, it gave me the complete creeps. Then getting to be a part of that creepiness when I was in music school really cemented my love for this work. Now I have to put it on my top 10 list of fave works, for sure.

To each his own, of course! At least there are many more Shosty symphonies to choose from if you aren't a fan of this one!

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Chantal, thanks for your comment!

I'm looking foward to tackling his Seventh, and I also have his First, Second and Twelfth on CD here. We'll definitely get our fill of "Shosty" (love that!) in the next few months.


JP said...

The 4th and 5th are good ones to try, as well.

I enjoy the 11th, but I admit it is somewhat crass in its striving for effect at times.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi JP, thanks for your comment and your thoughts. I guess I'm going to have to get a few more Shosty symphonies!


JP said...

I look forward to your thoughts. Like you, I am rediscovering classical music after a considerable period of time, although with an all-new collection as my first collection was acquired in the tape era, and is mostly defunct now.

Hannah Reardon-Smith said...

I'd suggest that we shouldn't overlook the fact that much of the melody in this symphony is taken from revolutionary folk songs from around the time of the Bloody Sunday massacre. The first movement in particular features the melodies of two Russian tunes: Listen and The Prisoner.

In addition, I'd just like to put it out there that although "soundtrack" has become something of a derogatory term in recent years, much of the time and effort of our greatest symphonists in the 20th century has gone into composing film music, mostly because that's where the money is. They have to eat! So the reason it seems a bit soundtracky is that soundtrack music is actually derived from the techniques of composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev (who both wrote extensively for film) - with the additional fact that this is an explicitely programmatic work. Because of this work's effectiveness, subsequent composers writing for film have adopted similar techniques to create atmospheres of tension and military involvement.