Written and first performed in 1957, Shostakovich’s Symphony #11 was ostensibly about the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905. Everything the composer wrote or said after Stalin squashed him in 1935 because the dictator was offended by Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk has to be decoded.
He composed the piece in the wake of the Soviet repression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Using 1905 as sunscreen for his horror at his country’s repulsive behavior a half century later is a real possibility. Another view is that he intended the symphony as a requiem for his generation. No way to know for sure what his intent was. And it doesn’t really matter; the music succeeds or fails solely on it merit.
The work contains numerous quotations of revolutionary songs, which are familiar to Russian audiences, but go unnoticed in the West. There’s even a quotation from Die Walküre. Written in a direct and forceful style the symphony can be considered the greatest film score ever written except that it doesn’t have a movie to go with it. If it did, the picture would likely be overwhelmed by the music.
Of course, the directness and force of the symphony caused some critics the consider the work as simplistic and not serious. Today, 63 years after its composition, it remains one of the greatest symphonies of the last century.
The work’s finale, its 4th movement, is entitled The Tocsin. A tocsin is an alarm bell. The celesta is used as the tocsin (nabat in Russian also the name of a revolutionary magazine). The movement contains three songs. Ignorance of the movement’s provenance in no way hinders the listener’s appreciation of the music. This performance is by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by its music director Andris Nelsons.