Symphony No. 12 in D Minor, “The Year 1917”

Dmitri Shostakovich

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, September 25, 1906; died in Moscow, U.S.S. R., August 9, 1975

Last season, the BSO performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s massive Eleventh Symphony, subtitled “The Year 1905” and inspired by the massacre of peaceful Russian demonstrators outside St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace that year, an event that was later seen as a prelude to the Russian Revolution. This year, Marin Alsop will introduce us to his Twelfth Symphony, “The Year 1917,” created as the Eleventh’s partner to memorialize the year in which the Revolution took place and specifically the events of October when Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power. Shostakovich dedicated the Twelfth “to the memory of Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin.”

We often think of this composer as a refusenik who waged an artistic battle against the worst excesses of Communist society. But in fact, his relationship with the regime fluctuated over the course of his life, and the years 1959 to 1961 when he composed the Twelfth were a period when he became more publicly allied with the Party line. In 1961, he even joined the Communist Party, a move that mystified and distressed many of his closest friends. Nikolai Khrushchev had launched a campaign to bring more members of the Russian intelligentsia into Party membership, and Shostakovich, as the U.S.S.R.’s leading living composer, clearly came under extreme pressure to join. It was a decision he reportedly came to bitterly regret.

Probably related to his new status, the composer was also pressured to make good finally on his longtime pledge to write a symphony on the subject of Lenin. The Twelfth Symphony was intended to be presented in conjunction with the annual Communist Party Congress, and it eventually was ready for the 22nd Congress in October 1961.

However, Shostakovich encountered uncharacteristic difficulty with this Symphony: usually an exceptionally fast worker, he took two years to complete it. Originally, he planned that it would include a chorus and speaker singing and reciting poems about Lenin, along the lines of his Second Symphony of 1927 (also about the October Revolution). Reportedly, he even wrote more than one version of the Symphony. Ultimately, it became a purely orchestral work in four movements, but with a strong programmatic, or descriptive, component.

The Twelfth was premiered on October 1, 1961 simultaneously in two locations: in the city of Koubichev and more prominently in Shostakovich’s home city of St. Petersburg by the Leningrad Philharmonic, led by its legendary director Evgeny Mravinsky. But despite the massive publicity surrounding its premiere, it was not really a success with the public or the critics. Many felt that the composer on this occasion was using his phenomenal orchestral techniques to cover up the fact that his heart wasn’t really in the subject.

This is a symphony that is built from the transformations of one potent motto theme, which we hear immediately at the opening of the massive, sonata-form first movement, “Revolutionary Petrograd.” Shostakovich reported that the mood of this music was inspired by his own memories of Lenin’s arrival and street fighting in Petrograd (the name of St. Petersburg during that period) in October 1917 when he was a boy of eleven. Cellos and basses sing in unison the motto theme: a solemn, very Russian theme based on the shape of Orthodox chant. The rest of the strings enter and flesh out its harmonies. This melody rises torturously upward until it is cut off by an explosion of drums and tam-tam announcing the start of the main Allegro section, led off by bassoons snarling a militant march theme. Shrill and savage, the music describes the people of Petrograd rising up against the weak government that had replaced the Czar. Then it subsides for the movement’s second major theme, which is derived from the motto melody; this more lyrical theme seems to express the people’s yearning for a new order. This appealing melody is developed and gradually builds to a triple-forte shout.

The development section, again led off by bassoons, is a dramatic street battle, culminating in a gigantic blast of tam-tam. Then the second theme reprises gently in the strings. After a splendid brass chorale, the movement closes quietly to the strains of the solemn motto theme.

A hushed bridge passage — each movement of this Symphony is connected without pause to the next — leads to the Adagio second movement, “Razliv.” Razliv was the name of Lenin’s country home where he retreated periodically to make his plans. Once again, unison cellos and basses introduce a troubled theme: a twisting version of the motto. Unison horns then present a baleful new theme, heavy with potential danger. In fact, the horns will be very prominent throughout this movement, periodically returning with a chorale-like refrain. Also prominent are woodwind soloists, particularly flute, clarinet, and bassoon; they dominate most of this melancholy music. A sense of expectation gradually builds over shuddering strings. After the solo trombone sings the baleful theme in its most sinister appearance, stealthy pizzicato low strings on the movement’s opening theme bridge to the next movement.

Movement three is subtitled “Aurora.” The “Aurora” was the battleship on the Neva River that fired the signal shot for the storming of the Winter Palace on October 26, 1917; it has been preserved there as a memorial. In this scherzo-style movement, the energy builds slowly with pizzicato strings offering a new version of the Adagio’s first theme and drums menacing. Ultimately, the big second theme from movement one returns in trombones and tuba; it propels a huge crescendo leading to the explosive irruption of drums signaling the attack.

This music merges directly into the finale, “The Dawn of Humanity.” Horns followed by violins proclaim a joyous new version of the once-solemn motto melody. When this opening section subsides, violins quietly introduce a dancing version of the Adagio’s twisting theme. Indeed, this finale is filled with reprises of the Symphony’s various themes now transformed into a song of celebration. Eventually, the lyrical theme of the people that dominated movement one also joins them in the brass. To pounding drums, the whole orchestra roars out a triumphant conclusion in D major.

Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2014