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Shostakovich (1906-75) - Symphony No. 12 "The Year 1917"

In 1960, at the frozen heart of the Cold War, Shostakovich finally became a member of the Communist Party, subsequently “contributing” to Pravda a series of articles condemning bourgeois western music. At that time, the West, not comprehending the consequences of the alternative, understandably damned Shostakovich with the rest of the Soviet Union. When the Twelfth Symphony was first heard at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival, the critics were appalled at this crude piece of blatant, poster-painted Soviet propaganda. After all, that was exactly what it sounded like, lacking even the one redeeming feature of the much-maligned Second Symphony, that extraordinary, undisciplined crucible in which Shostakovich forged his mature style. The Second was seen as experimental, the Twelfth seemed merely excremental. 

Over the years since Shostakovich's death came Testimony (Solomon Volkov's contentious “Memoirs of Shostakovich”, a then unsubstantiated exposé of the Soviet), glasnost, the fall of the Wall, and the gradual emergence of the appalling truth about the Soviet “experiment”. The West rediscovered Shostakovich, as a composer of immense integrity, courage and cunning, who had distilled the character of “Janus-Poulenc” into a technique for both survival (“rendering unto Caesar”, seemingly giving the authorities what they demanded) and expression (saying what he really, really wanted to his audience, the people). He also had, and needed, a bit of luck - but, as they say, fortune favours the brave. He spoke through a mask of conformism using musical codes, incorporating cross-references to his earlier works, quoting folk or popular songs, and using numerous technical devices. Of this last, perhaps the easiest to spot is his use of two-note phrases to represent (usually) Stalin, the Opressor, and three-note phrases to represent the oppressed population. 

It transpires that, considering the dreadful alternative, Shostakovich had no option but to sign up. His reputation abroad was growing, and the Soviet authorities were anxious to capitalise (!) on his growing propaganda value. He was also required to give his name to that series of denunciatory articles, and was expected to produce, for the 22nd. Party Congress, a new symphony celebrating Lenin's victory of October 1917. Lenin had a god-like reputation in Soviet culture, which made the task even harder, and more fraught with danger, for the antipathetic (and atheistic) composer. Sick at heart, Shostakovich struggled for inspiration, finding none in Lenin (whom Shostakovich knew to be every bit as wicked as Stalin) or his Bolshevik Revolution. His inspiration eventually came, I think, from the sheer enormity of the challenge, apparently to glorify Lenin whilst perpetrating an an even greater subversion than the celebrated Fifth Symphony

This synopsis attempts (merely!) to summarise what is in effect an astoundingly complex “plot”: 

First Movement: Revolutionary Petrograd: Bass strings growl a first subject laden with threat, clawing upwards in a brutal crescendo, abruptly decapitated. The pace quickens for an extensive development dominated by two-note phrases. Tentative three-note phrases usher in a more fluid second subject, also on bass strings. It too is immediately developed, into a burgeoning climax beset by thudding two-note blows. Thus Shostakovich announces in tandem, “This is Lenin, and this the People”. The brewing insurgence of the development proper sets off much as did the first subject development, but soon we hear two echoes from the Eleventh Symphony, which spoke of the abortive 1905 uprising (fomented not by the Bolsheviks, but by the liberal Narodniks). One, canoning across the strings, recalls the fate awaiting the innocent demonstrators at Palace Square, the other alludes to a couple of themes in the finale, both themselves quotations (from Rage, You Tyrants!, and the Warsaw March, originally a Polish revolutionary song). A brilliantly exciting conflict ensues, during which the “Lenin” theme gains dominance. The recapitulation is scattered like ashes on the field of battle, the violins insinuating into the “People” theme the motif of “betrayal” from Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk (an undulating theme best known from its appearance in the Eighth Quartet). “Lenin” brays brazenly on heavy brass, and the People's three notes pluck, supplicating, at his coat tails. 

Second Movement: Razliv, to the north of St. Petersburg, was Lenin's retreat while planning his October assault. In the gloom, uninspired, “Lenin” broods (a new theme on solo horn), the “People” creeping deep in the shadows of his mind. A chorale tartly evokes Lenin's self-righteousness. Suddenly, the “People” burgeon into an idea (violins), and the several themes intermingle in sombre meditation, swelling into threnody (presaging the consequent agony of the people) before receding into gloom. Holy light penetrates the blackness, over pulsing strings the “brooding” theme becomes “divine inspiration”. As this theme progresses through bassoon to clarinet, it spawns a brief quotation of Shostakovich's early, abortive Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution, a supremely ironic comment on Lenin's “genius”. Tamtam and string tremolandos cast a deathly chill of over the rosy glow. Sounding uncannily like one of Alberich's more grandiloquent gestures, Lenin proclaims his plan (the “inspiration” theme) on solo trombone. Pizzicato basses intone an element of the threnody of the Eleventh Symphony, juxtaposed meaningfully with the people's three notes over a subterranean bass drum. Ian MacDonald elegantly concludes: “Thus, with infinite finesse, Shostakovich lays at Lenin's door the ultimate guilt for the fifty million victims of his Glorious Revolution”. 

Third Movement: Aurora: This short movement falls into two distinct parts. In the first, tympani and pizzicato strings generate a rhythmic variant of the “inspiration” theme: the plan becomes action. The air crackles with tension, but urgency dissolves into expectant quiet: a plan alone is not enough. In the second part, over bass drum and crawling strings, the “People” rise up through deep brass in a truly glorious crescendo. Significantly, the only two “truly glorious” moments in this work are both based firmly on the “People”. At the climax, the battleship Aurora unleashes its opening salvo at the Winter Palace. The battle is brief, dominated by the “inspiration/plan” theme on extremely violent percussion and brass, a  maelstrom  into which the “People” are inexorably sucked. 

Finale: The Dawn of Humanity. Capping supreme irony with what now seems almost suicidal blatancy, the finale bursts in on massed horns rendering the Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution as the jubilant first subject (to be fair, very few would actually have known this theme). After a climax, the second subject, oscillating in violins, seems to harp back to the tentative “dancing in the streets” of the Eighth Symphony's finale, especially when joined by the “Lenin” theme for an ambivalent development. A couple of climaxes later comes a remarkable incident: the “People” theme surfaces for the first time in the finale, a lilting variant redolent of the style of Rimsky Korsakov, who was a Narodnik sympathiser. This provokes a massive outburst of “Lenin”, and the music becomes immediately more martial, propelling the “Victims” and the “People” into a stark confrontation with the grim figure of “Lenin”, now in his original (true?) colours. The ensuing coda is a victory even more hollow than that of the Fifth Symphony, the “Victims” and “People” themes hysterically festive, but repeatedly halted by a massive, stagnant three note phrase on heavy brass. Is this the people's three notes, banging their heads against a brick wall, or the second phrase of Lenin's “inspiration/plan” theme, stonewalling the celebrations, or what? (You choose!) The final repetition, even more insistent, draws a response from the tympani, thundering the germinal motif of the Eleventh Symphony - a dire warning. 

Ian MacDonald suggests that awareness of the “codes” in his music is essential for full understanding of Shostakovich, both as a musician and as a man*. Whilst I generally agree, I nevertheless believe that if a piece of music is “good”, it must be“good” regardless of any hidden agendas. Does the Twelfth Symphony measure up? It is the most thoroughly codified of his symphonies: elsewhere, the codes are integral parts of the symphonic arguments, but here the codes are the argument. However, you could substitute different “characters” and still have a valid (though different) tale to tell. When all's said and done, all musical themes are characters, and the musical form is the tale they enact. This may not be the best thing Shostakovich ever did, but it is a far better work than many pundits would have us believe. Shorn of its encrustation of Western propaganda, it is at the very least a fascinating, colourful and exciting musical adventure, whether or not you understand the story. 

* This is too complex to elaborate here. If you are interested, may I commend The New Shostakovich, by Ian MacDonald (published by Fourth Estate, London). Shostakovich's story is a riveting read, tense, dramatic, tragic, moving, and sometimes - literally - ridiculously funny. My interpretation of this symphony, although guided to some extent by MacDonald, disagrees with his in several respects, but (such is the stuff of music) the essential import remains intact. 

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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