Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 in G minor

Notes on the Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op.103


Patrick Campbell Jankowski

- a film score without the film

- “one of the most powerful pieces ever written,” saying the Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian, “It is really about the power of the human struggle and about human defiance.”

- Highly recommended

Shostakovich was no stranger to cinema. He wrote a number of film scores himself, and was a thoughtful contributor to the debate around exactly what movie mucic should be. Unlike a series of cures strung together, Shostakovich saw an ideal film score as exemplifying an “unbroken symphonic tone throughout,” which strengthen and heighten the emotions on screen. While his eleventh symphony has nothing to do with any real file, its cinematic qualities are clear. Its scenes are not hard to imagine: cold, lonely streets, empty city squares, figures in prayer, calamitous riots, the ominous march of an army, the clamorous tolling of bells from high atop church spires. ..

These scenes, and even some of the folk-derived melodic material (a rare inclusion for the composer), would have resonated particularly among Shostakovich’s audience, although they have lost little of their impact over time. Some believe that the Year 1905 designation is in fact a mask, and that the true impetus for the symphony was the 1956 uprising in Hungary, far more contemporaneous with the work’s composition.

The austerity of its opening is made more profound by how long we are forced to endure its haunting stillness. That anxious calm makes the violent energy of the second and final movements all the more visceral. The sonority of bells is present from the outset: wide open octaves and fifths ring clear, occasionally jostled by grating half-steps. Lonely brass fanfares impart a sense of paranoia that grows throughout the entire symphony. As in a film scores, Shostakovich introduces and revisits themes in later movements: the English Horn’s elegiac prayer in the final movement is foreshadowed by a chant-like theme at the very beginning. Atop an energetic bass clarinet line, the horns carry a chorale that echoes the brass from the top of the symphony, as the snare drum recalls militaristic menace, and the work ends in a brilliant wash of ringing bells.

Looking back at the end of the symphony, you’ll find that Shostakovich has crafted a work of “unbroken symphonic tone:” here lies the musical accomplishment to the triumph and horrors of real life.