Skip to page content

Full title: Symphony No. 12 in D minor,
Op. 112, "The Year 1917"

Length: 38 minutes

Composed: 1959-1961

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle), and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Shostakovich's lifelong complicated dance with Soviet political wolves included several flirtations with a symphony commemorating the life of Lenin. The Twelfth was one of these, completed in August 1961 for an upcoming Party Congress and just before Shostakovich submitted his second application to join the Communist Party. (He was accepted as a full member at a special meeting of the Union of Composers in September.)

Shostakovich's initial ideas included using poetic texts to describe Lenin's life in four movements: his youth, the revolutionary Lenin, his death, and post-Lenin life on the path he had pioneered. (One of Shostakovich's friends, Lev Lebedinsky, has claimed that the composer actually intended a parody of Lenin rather than a tribute, and revised the symphony at the last minute when he feared that the mockery was too obvious.) Although the Twelfth Symphony is dedicated to the memory of Lenin, it became a purely instrumental work depicting scenes and events of "The Year 1917" in four continuous movements.

Shostakovich also composed film music throughout his life, beginning with a score for the silent film New Babylon in 1929 and ending with King Lear in 1970. The vividly cinematic Twelfth Symphony could be considered the score for an imaginary film playing only in the theater of the mind, a sort of aural Soviet documentary. "Revolutionary Petrograd" depicts the tensions of St. Petersburg at the beginning of the revolution, ultimately erupting in violence. Razliv was Lenin's hideout near St. Petersburg, and Shostakovich underpins somber reflections with hints of ominous menace. The Aurora was the battle-cruiser that launched the October Revolution by shelling the Winter Palace, and Shostakovich portrays the action with a martial scherzo featuring a proto-Star Wars march. "The Dawn of Humanity" represents the joyful apotheosis of revolutionary struggle as the new society emerges from the ashes of the old regime.

The two tunes heard at the very beginning provide all the basic motivic material for the whole work. But if Shostakovich was parsimonious with themes, he made up for it with imaginative transformations and lavish orchestration. Lavish not so much in the sheer number of instruments, but in the profusion of solo opportunities and the highly pictorial sound. Hardly Shostakovich's most profound or ponderable symphony, "The Year 1917" is in effect almost a cycle of thematically connected mini-tone poems.

- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.