At least since the 1979 publication in English of “Testimony,” the reputed memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich related to musicologist Solomon Volkov, a pitched battle has unfolded over the meaning of his music. No 20th-century composer has had his works subjected to such intense scrutiny in the effort to uncover their political stakes. Was he a communist or a dissident? Loyal party servant or covert truth-teller in a den of lions? Not for nothing has this debate been dubbed the “Shostakovich wars.”
Those issues are sharply present in his Symphony No. 11 in G minor, which the NEC Philharmonia plays on Wednesday at Symphony Hall. Subtitled “The Year 1905,” it depicts and commemorates the incident that sparked the Russian Revolution: What began as a peaceful entreaty to Czar Nicholas II became “Bloody Sunday” when troops opened fire on the Palace Square crowd, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
The event carried strands of both tragedy and heroism in Soviet memory when Shostakovich was commissioned to write a piece memorializing the Revolution in the mid-1950s. There was an expectation of jingoistic fervor from the authorities whose surveillance of Shostakovich’s work since the mid-1930s had taken a mental toll on the composer. He wove into the piece a number of revolutionary songs whose significance would have been immediately apparent to those who heard it when it was premiered in 1957.
Yet if the 11th Symphony is political agitprop, it is a remarkably strange specimen. It has a bleak, cold opening, depicting the quiet Palace Square at daybreak, two remarkably violent movements, and a limping funeral march. The finale builds to a furious climax, after which follows a long, lamenting English horn solo and a strangely agitated G-minor outburst at the end, not the affirmative conclusion the composer’s minders might have expected.
“I think, as he was very capable of doing from 1937 on, the Eleventh can be heard on two levels,” said Hugh Wolff, NEC’s director of orchestras, who is to conduct the performance. The extensive use of revolutionary songs gave the piece the cover of bureaucratic conformity. Yet by choosing the theme of a failed uprising against a despotic state and infusing the piece with such aggressive rhetoric, Shostakovich effectively subverted that nod to officialdom and made the piece speak to its own time.
“I think that this allowed him to play it both ways, which is what he was so good at,” Wolff said.
Many have hypothesized that the contemporary event being echoed was the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, in which thousands of citizens revolted against the Soviet-imposed rule. It too was brutally put down. Indeed, the parallel between the two events is so stark that Wolff thinks the question of whether it was consciously intended by Shostakovich is almost beside the point, because the resonance would have been immediate and all but unmistakable.
“This is a piece about the brutal suppression of an uprising by a tyrannical government,” he explained. “In 1957, did Russian citizens hear echoes of 1956 in Hungary? Yeah, 90 percent. Would they also hear echoes of their feeling about their own government? Yeah, 70 percent, depending on their political leanings. Did the authorities object to the piece? Not enough to get Shostakovich in trouble.
“So from a purely practical point of view,” he continued, “I think it’s brilliant by Shostakovich on all levels — brilliant politically, brilliant musically, since he was able, as in the Ninth and 10th Symphonies, to deliver a message that the cognoscenti are hearing and a different message that the Party hacks are hearing.”
During his career Wolff has seen a remarkable shift in attitudes toward Shostakovich’s music. Ironically, he thinks, the further we get from the political crucible in which it was forged, the more clearly his music speaks, especially to young people.
“When I was a student and Shostakovich was still alive,” he said, “there was a slightly cynical view. He had joined the Communist Party. What kind of a man was he? The Cold War was raging and in some sense he was on the other side. But now, years after all of that is over, an examination of his works yields something that is so viscerally emotional and powerful and speaks on so many levels that younger people who know nothing of that period, and lived through none of those emotions, hear what he’s saying.”
As for the music itself, many have held it to be less than top-drawer Shostakovich, akin to glorified film music. Wolff allowed that it may be less subtly constructed than the Fifth or Tenth Symphonies. But, he added, “When you’re in the process of preparing it, particularly the fury of the second movement and the colors of the first and third, it’s a profoundly captivating piece. The sweep of the drama, and the ideas that recur and where they recur and in what context, is so cinematic and so moving on a very emotional level. From that point of view, I really love preparing this piece and over the years have become more and more convinced of its power.”
The performance of the 11th — a work the Boston Symphony Orchestra has never played — is part of NEC’s season-long “Music: Truth to Power” project. Also on the program is Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, with which it shares themes. Goethe’s play, for which Beethoven wrote incidental music, tells of the fight of Count Egmont of the Netherlands against the Duke of Alba, a Spanish despot. Wolff pointed out that Beethoven wrote the “Egmont” music during Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna: Again, a historical example is made to speak, through music, to the present.
“They were both composers who were interested in how you express the struggle against tyranny,” Wolff said. “Which was not something composers prior to Beethoven spent a lot of time trying to express. But these guys were not working in a vacuum.”