No More Masters: Repetitions of Tyranny in Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony

[Originally posted on Facebook on 11 November 2017.]

In a kind of commemoration of the centenary of the utter human catastrophe that was the Bolshevik Revolution, and given that I’ll be presenting Dmitri Shostakovich’s music as part of tomorrow’s session of the Pro-Life Social Doctrine Certificate Program, a review of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905,” seemed worthwhile. I happily heard the BSO perform the symphony last month.

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are engaged in the signal service of traversing the Shostakovich symphonies. This season they will also play the Fourteenth (in February) and the Fourth (in March). Those are major symphonies of the greatest symphonist of the last century, Mahler alone excepted. You should certainly not miss the Fourth: the most powerful experience I have had at Symphony Hall was hearing the Fourth with my sister five years ago, the BSO under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski.

The Eleventh explicitly commemorates the decisive event of the Revolution of 1905, Bloody Sunday, which severed the bond between Tsar and people (making 1917 possible), when the Cossack horse guards of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg opened fire on a massive, but peaceable, procession of workers, killing hundreds. Shostakovich’s father was in that massive crowd, and Dmitri would be born the following year.

But Shostakovich composed the symphony when the USSR’s crushing of another subjugated people was a raw reality. The Soviet tanks that destroyed the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 are no less his theme, as he makes clear in Testimony:

“I think that many things repeat themselves in Russian history. Of course the same event can’t repeat itself exactly, there must be differences, but many things are repeated nevertheless. People think and act similarly in many things… 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.’”

Shostakovich was an immense paradox: both a craven survivor and a breathtakingly fearless hero of artistic integrity, unflinching in his compositional witness to suffering. He is, of course, a Straussian dream, convicting the predations of the Nazis or of the ancien régime, say, as well as that of his Soviet masters at the same time—the latter a narrative hidden within the former. He thus teaches us how to demystify inhumane power as such. This method is much like the Book of Revelation: rooted in a specific historical context, but capable of elucidating other specific historical contexts by elucidating the underlying structures and dynamisms of history.

The symphony is played without breaks between the four movements: “Palace Square,” “The Ninth of January,” “In Memoriam,” and “The Tocsin.”

The open fifths of the first movement evoke the stasis of secular totalities, whether that of the ancien régime, or of fascist and Marxist states. It is a cosmic space of slow and cold sublimity, the khôra in which a Republic may one day arise.

In Harlow Robinson’s excellent program notes, he presents this important key for unlocking the logic of the movements: “Musicologist Levon Akopyan sees the Eleventh Symphony’s structure as a tribute to the massive propaganda ‘mystery plays’ enacted in public spaces in the 1920s. ‘Their dramatic structure was as follows: first a picture of the unenlightened past, then—awakening of protest, maturation of revolutionary consciousness, decisive battle, mourning over the fallen heroes, and finally, the triumphant dawn of the new era.”

I think this gets the basic movement right, the only questionable mapping of one on the other coming with the second movement: in a fairly straightforward, programmatic (indeed “cinematic”) sense, “The Ninth of January” presents the massacre of Bloody Sunday. How can the second movement represent the praxis of “maturation of revolutionary consciousness” and of “decisive battle” if it is in fact representing the forces of reaction?

Well, if one should read 1956 in the palimpsest of 1905, then we come to recognize that revolution and reaction are not opposites: the forces of revolution of 1905 and of 1917 become the forces of reaction in 1956. From revolution/reaction, we always have the dead (“In Memoriam”). What Shostakovich does not present is “the triumphant dawn of the new era.” The Eleventh does not close in the apotheosis of the secular state. The struck bells are still “tocsins,” alarms, all the way to the end, warning the human spirit, within an emphatic G-minor tonality.

The symphony goes from ice to iron.

Power always creates a parasitical elite class. Over and over and over again. What opposes it is usually its dialectical opposite, just as obtuse, just as ravenous, though not yet as guilty.

But guilty it becomes, if untempered by the humility of sincere service of the transcendent.

The only way to break the cycle runs through the self-transcendence of the human spirit, through knowing more and loving more, through a liberally educated mind and a bleeding heart, that is profoundly tolerant of other political viewpoints, that refuses to concentrate power.

What I hear in Shostakovich’s utterly honest record of the victims is a plea: no more masters. A blind cry for a liberal republicanism.

Things are static; they must move; but they must move humanely, by wisdom and love, by self-government through virtue and study and aesthetic cultivation, under the sweet government of the good God.