by Joseph E. Morgan

There is no art for art’s sake. There are no, and cannot be “free” artists, writers, poets, dramatists, directors or journalists, standing above the society. Nobody needs them.”

Joseph Stalin, 1946


On April 29th, 2016, the Nashville Symphony’s remarkable performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor “The Year 1905” just happened to coincide with a wonderful exhibition, “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography and Film,” at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. The juxtaposition provided the people of Nashville a singular chance to experience art as it was behind the Iron Curtain.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 was premiered by the USSR State Symphony in 1957 with the title “The Year 1905.” It commemorates events that occurred on the infamous “Bloody Sunday” in January of that year when a group of unarmed and peaceful protestors, led by Father Georgy Gapon, marched to Tsar Nicholas’ winter palace in order to present him with a petition for better working conditions. When they arrived, they were fired upon by soldiers of the Imperial Guard and many were killed. The public was outraged, and this led to more protests and general strikes. This event is now considered to be one of the primary catalysts that led to the Russian revolution of 1905. In his remarkably cinematic symphony, Shostakovich depicts the events of that day in the first two movements, titled “The Palace Square,” and “The Ninth of January.”

As such, the movements are thematically related, with the opening movement setting the Palace Square in thin, translucent strings and distant timpani. The music gradually increases into a dénouement in the second movement’s depiction of the massacre. At the end of the second movement the Palace Square music is darkly reprised in a ghostly recollection of the dead from that day. Between, the composer incorporated several nationalistic tunes that were likely sung at the march.

On Friday, Maestro Guerrero and company set the slow ascent to fervent patriotism and ultimate catastrophe with haunting poignancy. The string section held Shostakovich’s glacial first movement together as if the whole were cut from one piece of cloth. The horn section’s distant fanfares led, devastatingly, to the tragic climax of the second movement as if it were preordained.

When the Symphony was premiered in 1957, and indeed when it won the Lenin Prize in 1958, it signaled that Shostakovich had been formally rehabilitated after being criticized by Joseph Stalin’s “Zhdanov Doctrine” of 1946 The Doctrine was a governmental decree which came out against Shostakovich (and Prokofiev) for their “formalism,” and “misuse of dissonance.” Although he was surely troubled by the decree, Shostakovich had been attacked by the administration before, indeed the Soviet Regime was generally quite influential in determining the course of Soviet arts.

As depicted very well by the exhibition at the Frist, in the earliest days of the Soviet Union the authorities embraced the modernist agenda. They thought that the radical aesthetics of artists in the avant-garde movement would be best equipped to reflect the radical political thinking behind the communist doctrine. Photographers were commended when they expanded their expressive language, employing heretofore unusual techniques such as montage, collage, darkroom manipulation and alternative camera angles.

Alexander Rodchenko’s Mother from 1924, for example, is a portrait of Rodchenko’s own mother, cropped to display an incredible intimacy. Her scarf and simple blouse provide excellent negative space, while her callused hand guides the eye from the foreground to her face, the focal point. Her hand, clothing and discomfort with the glasses place her as one of the proletariat. Indeed, the glasses, raised quickly to scan a reading, indicate her recently acquired ability to read and perhaps express the people’s responsibility to stay informed of the events of their day. She is an archetype for the development of Soviet Social Realism.

Similarly, in 1934 Shostakovich premiered his opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District to great critical acclaim. Embracing the height of modernist and expressionist musical language, its verismo plot tells the story of a 19th century Russian woman who falls in love with one of her husband’s workers and is driven to murder. Her character is, however, depicted sympathetically, as a victim of the circumstances of the oppressive, autocratic Russia. Given that the music was recognized as “tuneful and accessible,” Shostakovich was acclaimed as a “democratic” composer.

However, after Lenin died, Joseph Stalin began to denounce Russian modernism. In 1936, he attacked Shostakovich in the official paper of the communist party, Pravda, as being “formalist.” That same year, Stalin and the entire Politburo attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera and soon denounced it on moral grounds, describing it as “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” This criticism came at the height of the Great Purge and many of Shostakovich’s reviewers who supported the opera quickly withdrew their support, in fear of reprisal for not agreeing with the new perspective offered by Pravda.

Rodchenko was also accused of “formalism” and producing elitist art that was unintelligible to the masses. He briefly responded by pointing out that in current approved photography, Stalin was being portrayed in the same way that the Tsars had before the revolution, stating “There’s no revolution in the fact that instead of a portrait of a general, people have started photographing the workers’ leaders with the same photographic approach as under the old regime or under the influence of the artistic West.” In the end, Rodchenko succumbed to the pressure and his modernism was replaced with blatant propaganda exalting Stalin’s directives.


Shostakovich, in response to the pressure, also succumbed. He wrote his heroic Fifth Symphony and further reestablished himself with his the overtly patriotic Seventh, (“Leningrad”) in 1941. In particular, the Fifth Symphony was described as “A Soviet Artist’s reply to just criticism.” Things went in his relationship with the administration until the Zhdanov Doctrine of 1946 when he again fell out of favor. However, by 1957, when his 11th Symphony premiered, Stalin was now dead and the decree was meaningless. The administration had re-accepted Shostakovich. Why would he still return to an overt patriotic musical language in this symphony?

The answer seems to come in the third and fourth movements titled “Eternal Memory,” and “The Tocsin” (The Alarm). The third movement’s “Eternal Memory,” is a Mahlerian funeral march that seems to be a lament not only for the deaths of the protesters in 1905, but to extend to anyone who has ever suffered under protest. This is continued in the fourth movement’s reintroduction of a March, and a reprise of the music of the “Palace Square” which leads again to a new catastrophe. Folks have suggested that when he composed it, Shostakovich was also thinking of the Hungarian uprising of 1956; this too seems to be possible, but only partly true.

More likely, Shostakovich was expressing a warning concerning the propaganda of revolution and the patriotism that both spawned the revolution and was yet demanded by the resulting oppressors. By cycling back through the march and catastrophe in his symphony, Shostakovich is expressing Nietzsche’s idea of “Eternal Recurrence,” the idea that history repeats itself.  It is to this that Shostakovich referred what he wrote of his Symphony:

“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”. It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over. That’s how the impressions of my childhood and my adult life come together. And naturally, the events of my mature years are more meaningful.” In his Testimony.

As the Frist exhibit, and the quote at the head of this blog attests, propaganda and the arts in the Soviet Union worked together to influence public opinion. They depicted a utopia that was only an ideal; an ideal of which Shostakovich had become quite suspicious by the end of his life. Revolution, whether in 1905, in 1917, or even in Hungary in 1956, would always remain quite expensive in human cost, and never fully realize the ideal.  In an election age when we are asked to join a “Political Revolution” or to “Make America Great Again” it might be important to consider Shostakovich’s warnings.

The Exhibition at the Frist continues through July Fourth and the Nashville Symphony’s season continues with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham this weekend.



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