Inside The Music: 1905

Editor of BBC Music Magazine Oliver Condy sheds some light on the circumstances surrounding the great works that feature in the Bristol International Classical Season 2015-16 at Colston Hall. These bite-sized programme notes and accompanying videos cut to the heart of the music, allowing you to get that little bit more from your classical experience.

Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, The Year 1905

On Sunday 9th January 1905, a procession of around 20,000 workers marched with a petition to St Petersburg’s Winter Palace, asking Tsar Nicholas II to grant them concessions: ‘We are in deepest poverty and oppressed with labours beyond our strength’, it read. The country was on its knees by the end of 1904 – harvests were failing, food prices rising and the economy was a disaster; add to that strikes, electricity cuts and shortages of essential goods, and it becomes clear why the Russian people were demanding change. The march was supposed to be peaceful, but nervous soldiers, sensing danger, opened fire, killing over 100 men, women and children. It was a tragic event that stirred a revolutionary spirit – Bloody Sunday, as it came to be known, was the start of the Russian Revolution.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 is an almost cinematic description of the events of that fateful day, the first movement, subtitled ‘The Palace Square’, describing the atmosphere in front of the Winter Palace before the march, the music ominous, expectant, gloomy, a backdrop of eerie strings pierced by fanfares calling from afar, menacing timpani motifs and the distant chanting of the Russian Orthodox prayer for the dead.

The second movement, ‘The 9th of January’, begins with rushing strings portraying perhaps the heightened senses and the nervousness of the petitioners; the mood quickens, launching into a march, the soldiers shooting to the sound of the blasting brass and the violent rat-tat-tat of the snare drum. And then numbness – Shostakovich surveys the chilling scene, mourning the dead, clinging bleakly onto hope, with those distant fanfares from the first movement intoned gently on the flute.

‘Eternal Memory’, the third movement, pays homage to the fallen with the revolutionary funeral song, ‘you fell as a victim in the fateful struggle’. Before long, however, hearts are hardened, and Shostakovich paints a picture of the people’s renewed determination with two revolutionary marching songs alongside a reminder of the terrible slaughter in the form of musical phrases snatched from the previous movement.

The finale burns with violent rage, the music’s power overwhelming in its indignation.

Symphony No. 11 won Shostakovich a Lenin prize in 1958 – for the Communist Party, it was a near-perfect portrayal of the events of 1905, a tonal, lushly-scored work that fitted with the artistic ideals of Soviet Russia. But was Shostakovich really glorifying the events of 1905, or was there something more to his music? The composer spent his entire life under the yolk of Communism, and much of his chamber music, particularly the string quartets, contained scathing attacks on the immoralities of the regime. His symphonies, however, were more public works of art, and his criticisms within them were, by necessity, more veiled. Symphony No. 11 may have been an outward celebration of revolution, but, written in 1957, three years after the death of Joseph Stalin, it mocked the collapse of the revolutionary dream, the unsustainability of the USSR. And many believe that the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising by the Russians in 1956 was written into the piece, too. We will, of course, never know what Shostakovich truly meant…

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1

Virtuoso pianist and composer Sergei Prokofiev died on the same day as Stalin. His extraordinary music, although thematically less controversial than Shostakovich’s, was deemed ‘formalistic’ and ‘anti-democratic’ by the Soviet authorities just five years before his death; yet during his life Prokofiev had composed some of the most beautiful, mischievous, dramatic, colourful music of the 20th century – just listen to his ballet Romeo and Juliet, the ‘Classical’ Symphony or his wonderful suite for children, Peter and the Wolf. Prokofiev also composed some of music’s most inventive – and technically challenging – piano concertos, and it’s a mystery that all five are so infrequently performed (although Nos 2 & 3 have enjoyed something of a resurgence of late, and all five were played in one concert at the 2015 BBC Proms). After all, they contain some of his most heartfelt melodies and skilful orchestrations, and burst with youthful energy. The single-movement No. 1 was written in 1912 by the then 21-year-old student – two years later, he performed it as part of his final exams at the St Petersburg Conservatoire instead of the usual work from the ‘accepted’ classical canon. It was his intention to get back at his conservative teachers, and he succeeded, winning first prize in the process! The 15-minute work is an unstoppable riot of piano virtuosity, rhythm and colour, the piano surging forward like a tiny electric motor within one of the composer’s grandest themes.

Beethoven Egmont Overture

Opening the concert is Beethoven’s ‘Egmont’ Overture, part of the incidental music that Beethoven wrote for a production of Goethe’s play in 1810 (and the only part of the music that is performed today). Beethoven’s overture is a dramatic symphonic poem that follows the action of Goethe’s play, telling the tale of the Flemish general, Count Egmont, who in the 16th century was executed for his role in leading his country in resistance to Spanish occupation.

The music contains all the suspense and drama of Goethe’s story, from the foreboding opening, presaging Egmont’s arrest to the rueful woodwind as his wife pleads for mercy, and the triumphant ending as Egmont’s execution inspires his fellow countrymen to rise up against their invaders. Only six or so years earlier, Beethoven had scrubbed out his dedication to the self-glorifying Napoleon on the score of his ‘Eroica’ Symphony, so the opportunity to write incidental music celebrating a real, selfless hero must have come as something of an antidote to his anger and disappointment. Beethoven poured his soul into the music to Egmont prompting Goethe to write, ‘Beethoven has done wonders matching music to text’.

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