(This was a small bit I wrote for a music list serve I belonged to with a couple friends of mine over the summer. At the time I entitled this share 'Music for a Failed Revolution.' What seemed apropos in June doesn't seem quite so much today.)
Shostakovich wrote his 11th symphony in 1957, four years after the death of Stalin and a year after the Imre Nagy's failed uprising against the Soviet authorities. It was also the work which Nikita Khrushchev used to rehabilitate Shostakovich. For the nine years previous, Shostakovich had been considered such a pariah that nearly all his music was banned throughout the Soviet domain. Every night, the composer slept in the hallway outside his apartment so that the KGB would not wake his family when they came for him.
(The second movement. The Asian Pacific Orchestra )
Critical opinion has long been against this symphony for all the reasons that it has long been against Shostakovich himself: the construction is loose, the emotions are heart on sleeve, and there is the vague suspicion that behind the music is nothing more substantial than Soviet agitprop.
But critical opinion of Shostakovich began to turn roughly thirty years ago. Shostakovich was barely in the ground when a Soviet musicologist named Solomon Volkov published a book that purported to be Shostakovich's memoirs. 'Testimony' told a very different story than the one we were told to believed about Shostakovich. Rather than a composer who set 'Das Kapital' to music over and over again, Testimony tells of a composer whose every note was fraught with the agony of being the only great artist left in the Soviet Union with the ability to speak truth to power.
(The final movement)
Shostakovich's freedom as a composer was limited, but compared to the scores of writers and artists killed for speaking their minds, it was limitless. You can't say that a piece of music is about Soviet oppression simply because it's in a minor key, or sounds angry. The Soviet authorities used to append meanings to Shostakovich's music that were commensurate with what they wanted to hear. But the Russian people got very different messages.
The sub-heading of the eleventh symphony is "The Year, 1905." The authorities were meant to believe that the symphony depicts the events of the first, failed Communist Revolution. But being written as it was only a year after the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the hidden meaning was probably quite clear.
While following the new Iranian uprising, this piece has seared itself into my head. I keep thinking of how Mstislav Rostropovich watched the pro-Soviet coup against Yeltsin in '91 on television, with the opening of Shostakovich 8 thundering in his head. He said it was though Dimitri Dimitriyevich was speaking to him from beyond the grave, saying that his place was inside the Kremlin at Yeltsin's side. Music may not mean anything at all, but it has the ability to suggest to people their own deepest fears and aspirations. This is why a revolution without music is not one worth having:)