10 Best: Symphony movements, no. 5


Symphony no. 11 ‘The Year 1905’, mvt. 4 by Dmitri Shostakovich

This selection is as likely as any to generate Biblical wailing and gnashing of teeth. Shostakovich has so much brilliant music to choose from for a countdown like this, and you could even try and argue that this isn’t even the finest movement of the symphony it’s actually in. I’m not entirely convinced myself, especially if I were to put the opening movement on right at this moment. And above Brahms? My God, have I lost my mind?

And yet, I don’t know if there is a single more evocative 15 minutes or so in all of music history. THAT’S why it’s here.

If you’re unfamiliar with the events of the Russian Revolution, I would urge you to read Harrison Salisbury’s terrific Black Night White Snow, which gives a broad context to both revolutions and the events that led to them. Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 11 focuses on the first of these two revolutions, which is really only a revolution because the second of these two actually worked. The first is more of a massacre, dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” during which hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were fired upon by members of the Tsar’s Imperial Guard. They had marched to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to deliver a petition to Tsar Nicholas II regarding government inefficiency and workers rights. 12 years later, the events of that day, 9 January 1905, would directly impact the much more successful revolution and installation of the Russian Provisional Government, which lasted all of nine months before the takeover by the Bolsheviks.

The opening movement portrays the eerie, unsettled atmosphere of the Winter Palace in the lead up to the demonstration with music that probably has the greatest volume-to-raw-power ratio ever (seriously, for a bunch of pianissimo strings and muted brass calls it’s absolutely “judo chop straight to the nuts” intense). The second movement details the massacre itself with unrelenting ferocity including a crushing fugato that looks back a bit to the opening movement of the Leningrad Symphony and then steps on its throat with a Cossack boot. The third movement Adagio is a memorial for the victims that is as beautiful as it is haunting.

The finale, though, brings the pain and fury that only 50 years of hindsight (the symphony was composed in 1957) allows. The subtitle of the movement is “Tocsin” which translates literally to “alarm” or “signal,” but translates figuratively to “you motherfuckers better look the fuck out because we’re coming again and next time we’re going to rain holy fucking hell on you.” This movement is a warning, a rallying cry, a call to arms, a primal scream, the sound of 50 million souls allowing their rage to coalesce into a middle finger to imperialism.

It contains some of the most Shostakovich-sounding Shostakovich you could hope for, including the snare drum of doom. The opening 7 or 8 minutes of the movement are a frenzy of manic energy, culminating in quite possibly the coolest and most world-eating bit of music Shostakovich ever composed. Trumpets and horns blow fanfares that recall the muted calls of the opening movement, after which the low brass absolutely pound the main march theme of the movement into the ground with brute force while the horns and trumpets unleash a furious, wailing countermelody of sorts and the woodwinds and strings scream bloody, frenetic murder. I cannot imagine music with more violence and aggression. After a bit more of this vengeful music, including the patented Shostakovich “everybody play in unison because that’s the only way we’ll prove how much we mean business” routine (perhaps the most famous examples are in the opening movements of the 5th and 7th symphonies), everything crashes to a halt and we’re left with the eerie stillness of the first movement and a long, mournful solo for the English horn that you can feel carrying emotional baggage and battle scars. It almost seems to ask “are we sure we can do this? We’ve been through so much already with nothing to show for it.” The coda provides the answer: God damn right we can. Menacing figurations in the bass clarinet kick us back into gear and build to the horns taking the English horn solos mournful tone and morphing it into a laser beam of anger. The music builds and builds until it explodes into an insistent march featuring snare drum of doom, mixed meters, and the alarm bell of the movement title. The great power of the end of the piece is the clash between G major and G minor, the bells never wavering from their unsympathetic intentions in spite of the orchestra’s two snarling major chords (seriously, these chords are so jarring because of the pervading brood of the entire symphony…it’s really staggering). The band ultimately settles for unison G while the bells never make up their mind, a fittingly uncomfortable resolution.

I know I don’t have to tell you fine people to crank it to 11, but seriously, you should risk hearing loss for this. Tell your neighbors to go fuck themselves in the best possible way and put your entire town on notice: I am not to be fucked with, and if you decide you want to try me, so help me God I’ll establish a Communist government up in this bitch, wait 15 years, and purge every last one of you. Also, here’s your lawnmower back. Thank You.

Finale starts around 52:10.

Note: wanna see how much heat the brass bring in this piece? Look where they’re sitting relative to, you know, THE REST OF THE FUCKING BAND! Even their colleagues were like “that’s just too much man.” That’s awesome.



4 thoughts on “10 Best: Symphony movements, no. 5

  1. I’m a big time sucker for this piece. I don’t care what anyone else says, Shostakovich 11 kicks major ass. I’m glad to see it here on the list. However, if I had to choose a movement from the present symphony, I might go with the second, if only for the ball ripping off fury of that fugato passage, and the stuff that follows, but hey, that bass clarinet at the end of the Tocsin is more than enough to convince me. I can’t wait to see what tops the list!

  2. Yep. 11’s the Shostakovich symphony that I play the most often, AND have the most versions of. That says a lot. Glad (but somewhat unsurprised) to see we’re in agreement on this. Surprised it hasn’t come up in conversation before now…

  3. Pingback: Stories I’m Writing #5: The Communist Permanent Insurance | The Write Stuff

  4. Pingback: Soviet composer Dmitriy Shostakovich | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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