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Shostakovich’s 11 th Symphony – Is it About 1956?

The famed Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg, currently on tour of the United States, gave a single concert in Washington, on October 25, at the Kennedy Center, under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society. Under the baton of Valery Gergiev, the Kirov performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, with Georgian pianist Alexander Toradze. The second piece on the program was the hour-long Symphony No. 11 in G minor, The Year 1905, by Dmitri Shostakovich. During a lecture preceding the concert, National Public Radio’s Fred Child, a music historian, explained that the piece depicts one of the central events leading to the Communist Revolution, the “Bloody Sunday” massacre of January 9, 1905. On that date, a group of unarmed workers, lead by a priest gathered in the square of the winter palace in St. Petersburg, to ask Czar Nicholas II for redress of their poverty and miserable working conditions. The czar’s troops opened fire on the petitioners, and more than 500 were killed. There is another school of thought, however, Child explained, according to which the Eleventh Symphony should be understood not only as a depiction of the czar’ slaughter of innocent Russians in 1905 but as a comment on the Russian government’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Shostakovich wrote the piece in 1957. He died in 1975, and during the intervening period he was often asked to clarify the matter but, for very obvious reasons (living under a Communist dictatorship), he never did.

The Kennedy Center audience responded to the Kirov’s and Gergiev’s interpretation of the piece with a standing ovation. The review, published the following day in The Washington Post, was somewhat more subdued.

Zoltan Bagdy