Opus 14: Symphony No. 2, Dedication to October, in B Major (1927)

Symphony no. 2, Dedication to October, in B Major, op. 14 (1927)
CD:  Shostakovich: Symphonies No. 2 & 3, London Voices, London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (Teldec D 115626; now rereleased on Warner Classics)

Men: Here is the banner…
Deeper-voiced men: Here are the names of living generations:
Men: October!
Women: The Commune!
All: And Lenin!
Orchestra: (Triumphant burble)

That pronouncement — spoken rather than sung, for maximal declamatory effect — comes at the end of Shostakovich’s second symphony; the work is his first expressly political one and that episode, about a minute out from the big finish, marks the composer’s first foray into what you could now call Soviet kitsch.  (The text comes from Alexander Bezymensky’s poem “To October”, which Shostakovich sets in the finale; I base my rendering on Richard Bannerman’s translation in the Teldec disc’s liner notes, which I make somewhat but not a whole lot less comprehensible, with an assist from Google Translate.)  The work as a whole, though, exhibits an experimental flair completely absent from the composer’s later, more squarely bombastic official works.  In 1927 such music was still acceptable in the USSR; within half a decade or so it would officially be deemed “formalist”, bourgeois, unintelligible to the masses, etc., and suppressed until the 1960s.

Shostakovich wrote his Symphonic Dedication to October, eventually designated as his symphony no. 2, on a commission to mark the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution.  It runs about twenty minutes long in a single movement with a choral finale; the customary knock against the work (and against the similarly structured third symphony) is that the modernism of the purely instrumental section is out of joint with the musically conservative, propagandistic chorus.  On listening to it now, though — it feels like my first genuinely close read of the piece, though I’ve owned this Rostropovich album for years and played it consistently, if not regularly, since then — I don’t hear an unbridgeable stylistic gap between the beginning and end.  Shostakovich primarily seems intent on writing conventional vocal lines, which pulls the instrumental setting into more familiar harmonic territory, but the work’s fiery intensity provides continuity, even though mostly transmuted into over-the-top bombast.

That intensity isn’t precisely a selling point; in place of emotional complexity Shostakovich relies on restless energy and piled-on instrumental textures, which can be exhausting at least as easily as thrilling.  (I was really grooving to it on my first, fresh listen-through, for what that’s worth, although a less familiar listener could fairly judge my now-automatic affection for anything that sounds recognizably like Shostakovich to compromise my judgment.)  The work opens with inchoate murmurings in the strings, from which more definite shapes take form; about three minutes in, trumpet calls begin to rise out of the fog, in a nice atmospheric touch:

This gives way via a murky tuba solo to a forward-charging section which, after two quick, swelling climaxes gives way to an extended violin solo.  This provides a respite, though it’s joined soon enough by the clarinet and, ultimately, a huge, fidgety mass of instrumental textures:

Shostakovich’s later music continues to break into march episodes, seemingly out of nowhere — and I’m at risk of gushing joyfully about every single example — but I like how this instance, recognizable by about the 24-second mark in the clip, forms up out of a dust cloud of musical material in contrast to his typically more staid transitions further on in his career.  I don’t think he could have known Charles Ives’ music — in this piece Shostakovich tilts at polytonality from a different angle — but the passage seems on the verge of becoming a Fourth, curiously Soviet, Place in New England.  The end of the excerpt above also gives a sense of the overripe chords that Shostakovich’s orchestra starts biting into on its way into the chorus.

Here’s the opening of the vocal part, to contrast with the examples above.  The voices are stern here as Bezymensky details some revolutionary hardships (“We kept on walking, we asked for work and bread. / Our hearts were held tight in the vice of despair.”), though they become predictably more ecstatic later.  The poem is breathlessly propagandistic and overly worshipful of the recently deceased Lenin; Shostakovich disdained it to his friends at the time, though his music gives it full-throated expression.

The remaining bit worth noting is a downward-stepping theme that the composer recycled years later, in a blockier form, in the finale of his Twelfth Symphony, also composed in honor of the 1917 revolution — the motif forms up through the second half of the symphony but it’s most clearly expressed about two minutes into the choral section:

Shostakovich presumably reprises the theme in the twelfth because of the thematic connection, and perhaps too as a reminder of the existence of the older, still largely forgotten symphony.  Now the contrast between the two works doesn’t flatter the later one:  The second symphony, rather than following a tedious official program, comes off more as an abstract canvas on which Shostakovich showcases his musical possibilities, and presents a vision of what a native Soviet musical language could be.  It’s not his strongest or best-organized early work (and it’s something of a shame that it gets relatively more attention than his other works of the time, based on the popularity boost it gets from being included with the rest of his symphonies) but its adventurousness sets it apart from the similarly themed official works he wrote later on, once the turgid, socialist realist style of Soviet music was established and rigidly enforced.


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