An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12
Conductor Vasily Petrenko's insight into Shostakovich's Twelfth Symphony 'The Year 1917'
Symphony No. 12 ‘The Year 1917’ Op. 112 (1961)
Premiered: Leningrad, 1961
Symphony No. 12, like the 11th, was written for a revolutionary commemoration, dedicated to Lenin. Shostakovich was invited to attend the 22nd Congress as a new Party member, where it was performed.
VASILY PETRENKO: The Twelfth is probably the most cryptic of them all, and a big discovery for me. It’s a hugely powerful piece, especially if you understand what’s behind it. He makes use of the traditional “People of Russia” from Musorgsky.
There’s a three-note theme representing the people, while Lenin is heard in a two-note theme (I subscribe to the view that he denotes a brutal leader or anti-human force in two note themes, and “humanity” in three-note ones). You can hear how Lenin moves the people towards catastrophe in the first movement. He then follows Lenin to Razliv in Finland, where he reflects on his strategy.
We hear a theme from Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen in Tuonela which deals with the hero’s death, when he is cut into pieces and thrown in a river – later his mother pulls out the pieces and only by her tears is he restored again. The message is clear. It’s one of the most clever calculations he made: firstly, to quote Sibelius – the necessary people would understand the message – and to put in the revolutionary songs as a cover. You can sense how songs start with a clear intention but are altered and warped.
In the final part, “the dawn of humanity”, he was raising a question for himself: if the 1905 revolution had been successful, would a parliamentary regime have been established?
Vasily Petrenko is, like Shostakovich, a son of Leningrad/St Petersburg, and grew up singing the composer’s songs in its Capella Boys Music School. In 1997 he won first prize in the Shostakovich Choral Conducting Competition and was made chief conductor of the St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra, during which time he took on the principal conductorship of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
On his arrival in the city in 2006, at just 30, he launched a project with Naxos to record all Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. The series has drawn international acclaim and, as the final instalment is released, he looks back on his nine-year journey. ‘To work with an orchestra on one composer for so many years has meant we could build a style, an approach to his language,’ he says. ‘At first, it felt like an exhilarating challenge: there are huge demands. Now, we are of one mind.’
Petrenko, born a year after the composer’s death, grew up in the Soviet Union. A beneficiary of its uniquely rigorous teaching system, he witnessed its dissolution when he was 15, the re-writing of history books, and even the emergence of a nostalgia for that dark era. He’s in touch with those who remember Shostakovich, and the times through which he lived, but has experienced the Western view of this controversial figure.
‘When I conduct these symphonies in Russia, there’s still an unspoken understanding of the songs, the messages. We talk more about the composer’s personal life. When I conduct in the West, it’s important to give the historical context. There’s still so much we don’t know; the family destroyed many letters when Shostakovich died. The State would probably have requisitioned them anyway.’