Lucky are we, who have barely any understanding of Dmitri Shostakovich’s music – filled with sounds of war, we who are enjoying decades of peace have no means of understanding the allusions the composer had embedded into this piece of music.

But it turns out, that we can still admire its beauty.

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Picking this historically significant composition for the BBC Proms 2019 programme seemed rather risky, but with virtuous performance from the BBC Philharmonic under John Storgårds it turned out to be absolutely timeless classic.

Subtitled The Year 1905, Shostakovich’s Symphony nr 11 (Op. 103) was composed and premiered in 1957. It was shortly after Stalin’s death, when short-lived hopes for an easing of the communist regime were crushed with Soviet intervention in Hungary in November 1956.

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No surprise then that the symphony divided Russian intellectuals. Some thought that one of their heroes sold himself to the regime. Their position was supported by the composer's return to favour: in 1958 Shostakovich received the Lenin Prize and was formally rehabilitated after 10 years in cultural exile based on the Zhdanov Doctrine, which marked him as a ‘formalist’ who was not to be played in the communist states.

With some easing of the cultural barrier, Shostakovich’s new symphony premiered in London in 1958.

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But it is not at all obvious whether communists were right about their prodigal composer’s return.

Anna Akhmatova stressed the sadness of the composition, which indeed does not give any reason to be understood as a tribute to the communist revolution of 1917, nor the regime that followed: the recurring war drums and cavalry trumpets seem to be saying that war is always the same and it does not really matter if the soldiers wear red or white.

The truth remains unknown. If in 1957, the audience with vivid and recent experience of two world wars were deceived by Shostakovich, in 2019, we can only intellectually acknowledge that recalling the events of Red Sunday 1905, when the Tsarist army opened fire on unarmed workers demonstrating in St Petersburg, might had been a way of disguised criticism of the presence of the Red Army in Budapest 50 years later.

Oxford Mail:

The 2019 BBC Proms continues at the Royal Albert Hall until September 14 with daily broadcasts on BBC Radio and television.

Tickets are available at The Royal Albert Hall’s website (

). Although several performances are already sold out, The RAH releases a limited number of standing Promming tickets for £7.12 online at 9am on the day of the concert.