With the BSO, a symphony of white birds and revolution

Dmitri Shostakovich (pictured) was working on the Eleventh Symphony while the Soviets were crushing the revolt against the Stalinist regime in Hungary.
AP/File 1958
Dmitri Shostakovich (pictured) was working on the Eleventh Symphony while the Soviets were crushing the revolt against the Stalinist regime in Hungary.

“Shostakovich — Under Stalin’s Shadow” was the original title of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s recording project with the venerable classical label Deutsche Grammophon. The title wasn’t particularly novel, but at least it signaled the basic contours of a fraught relationship between murderous dictator and great composer. It also made sense chronologically, given that this series was initially devoted to the middle five symphonies (Nos. 5-10), which were mostly written when Stalin’s terror reigned supreme.   

Deutsche Grammophon, evidently pleased with the critical and popular success of its first releases — and surely the two Grammys couldn’t have hurt — has now broadened the project’s scope, signing up Nelsons and the BSO to record the complete cycle of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. This means that starting with the current season, local audiences will have the rare opportunity to experience a healthy serving of the composer’s early and late works. 

This February, for instance, Nelsons will lead the beautifully austere, death-haunted Fourteenth Symphony, and beginning this Thursday, he leads the first of four performances of the colossal Symphony No. 11. Just how rarely are these works heard? The BSO has programmed the Fourteenth on its subscription series just once before, in 1990, and the upcoming performances of the Eleventh will be the first in the orchestra’s history.   


The Eleventh was completed in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death had brought to a close the darkest period in Soviet history. Officially at least, the mood was brightening. In 1954, the writer Ilya Ehrenburg published a novel — “The Thaw” — whose title came to describe the era as a whole, and a country awakening from an endless winter. 

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

For his part, Shostakovich used the occasion of his Eleventh to look backward. A massive and nearly cinematic work, the Eleventh is subtitled “The Year 1905,” and it pays tribute to the aborted Revolution of 1905, which began after the Tsar’s troops massacred a group of peaceful demonstrators who had gathered outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.  

The first movement, titled “The Palace Square,” opens with pristine ice floes of sound. Amidst all this talk of Thaw, one can imagine Shostakovich savoring the delectable irony of opening his Eleventh with the sound of frigid, bitter cold. The people in the square are waiting, shivering. Later in the movement, revolutionary songs ring out from the woodwinds and brass. The second movement, titled “The Ninth of January,” evokes the notorious Bloody Sunday, when, after the Tsar failed to appear, his troops opened fire, killing hundreds. The music is duly lacerating, full of weaponized percussion and an overall orchestral intensity ratcheted to an almost unbearable level. The third movement, “Eternal Memory,” is an extended elegy. The fourth is called “Tocsin,” meaning “alarm bell” and signaling, again through the symphonic transformation of revolutionary songs, the forward march of history.  

In official circles, the Eleventh was a triumph, honored with the Lenin Prize. Indeed, it seemed to check all the boxes: revolutionary subject matter, accessible folk-inspired musical material, and no sight of those dangerous modernistic tendencies to which Shostakovich had surrendered so many times in the past. At last, here was a lucid Socialist Realist work from the pen of the country’s most revered composer. End of story.   

Or was it? As with so many of Shostakovich’s works, the Eleventh also seems to carry a more personal cargo, its score akin to those “Magic Eye” images that reveal, for certain seers, hidden pictures within pictures. Of course the Thaw was real, but tundra does not melt overnight. Many Gulag prisoners returned, but forced labor practices hardly disappeared. And as if to underline the limits of liberalization, in 1956, while Shostakovich was working on this very symphony, the Soviet regime had brutally crushed the Hungarian Revolution, essentially replaying the narrative of 1905 — in reverse. 


So it’s not surprising that some of this score’s early listeners sensed something darker beneath its veneer of patriotism. “What we heard in this music was not the police firing on the crowd in front of the Winter Palace in 1905, but the Soviet tanks roaring in the streets of Budapest,” recalled one contemporary. “This was so clear to those ‘who had ears to listen,’ that [Shostakovich’s] son . . . whispered to Dmitri Dmitriyevich during the dress rehearsal, ‘Papa, what if they hang you for this?’” 

Even so, plenty of others took the Eleventh at face value — and this latter group included not only Party apparatchiks but also celebrated dissidents such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. 

We will of course never know what Shostakovich “really” had in mind as he wrote, and that very ambiguity brings a certain layered semantic richness to this music. We should also not rule out the possibility that neither or both interpretations are true, that this work reaches beyond political ideology to address a more basic human yearning for freedom, and that it does so at a time when “Stalin’s shadow” had separated from its original source and become for Shostakovich a kind of permanent light.

Among the Eleventh’s earliest listeners, the poet Anna Akhmatova had perhaps the most beautifully truthful response to the work in all its fullness. After the Leningrad premiere, the audience was apparently abuzz with opinions about the meaning of its revolutionary songs. For her part, the poet chose to remain silent, until she was later asked about what she heard. “Those songs,” she replied, “were like white birds, flying against a terrible black sky.” 

Boston Symphony Orchestra

At Symphony Hall, Sept. 28-Oct. 3. 617-266-1200,

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_