Shostakovich Symphony no. 2 in B, op. 14, ‘To October’

performed by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Neeme Järvi, or as below with the WDR Radio Chorus and WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne under Rudolf Barshai

(cover image by Taton Moïse)

[O]ne is tempted simply to cut it off with a pair of scissors.

Solomon Volkov, of the second symphony’s finale

And here he is: we are this week and next discussing the second and third symphonies of Prokofiev and… Shostakovich.

While Prokofiev’s second symphony was a head scratcher not only for the audience but the composer himself, it has gained recognition in more recent times as a blisteringly intense, genius work, at least by some. It is challenging, undoubtedly harsh, perhaps even puzzling, but I am among those who has become spellbound by it.

Shostakovich’s second symphony, however, (and third, as we shall see) was not only not a roaring success at its premiere, but has continued to be recognized as some of his weakest work in the form. That’s okay, though: there’s the first, symphonies 5-8, the less gargantuan ninth, followed then by the incredible tenth and eleventh… and four more. So he’s got plenty to enjoy.

The work was composed for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. It was a commission from Lev Shuglin, “a dedicated Bolshevik and head of the Propaganda Department of the State Music Publishing House (Muzsektor), to write a large orchestral work with a choral finale.” Shostakovich wanted to move away from the style of his first symphony, and had other projects he wanted to work on. He came to grow tired of, if not entirely resent, composing the work, and thought very little of the text, but it was eventually completed. Wiki says:

Though Shostakovich had been commissioned by Muzsektor rather than Agitotdel, and was thus expected to produce a composition of abstract music instead of a propaganda piece, writing a short agitprop symphony seemed to solve all of Shostakovich’s problems. Such a work was entirely appropriate for the occasion for which it was being written. It would also be impossible for Muzsektor to turn it down, and was guaranteed at least some friendly press.

But it gave him at least something to reach for, to accomplish, in writing his second symphony, no matter how he came to feel about the work’s merit. It received its premiere on November 5, 1927 with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Nikolai Malko. Some revisions to this score were made, and the final version was played a few weeks later in Moscow.

The piece is in one unbroken movement made up of four sections, with the last containing a part for chorus. It is a radically different work than his first symphony, which is a marvelously successful work that to me gives us far better glimpses into who the composer would later mature into than either of these works we’ll discuss. Wikipedia explains it thusly, citing Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich:

Shostakovich composed his Second in a gestural, geometric “music without emotional structure” manner, with the intent of reflecting speech patterns and physical movements in a neo-realistic style. This choice may have been influenced at least partially by Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theory of biomechanics.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t strike me as a particularly compelling elevator pitch. If we think about it more like a Strauss tone poem than a Shostakovich symphony, maybe it’ll seem more convincing.

  1. Largo
  2. Quarter note = 152
  3. Poco meno mosso. Allegro molto.
  4. Chorus: “To October”

The piece begins almost imperceptibly. I have multiple times now put on this work while I’m doing other things, and promptly forgot anything was playing and suddenly started hearing strings. It’s about 20-ish seconds, depending on ambient noise, before you hear the low mumbles of the ensemble in this first and longest movement. It’s marked largo, and the first real utterance of any kind, out of this jumble of sound, comes from the brass, in the form of more low growls, and eventually a trumpet solo.

The sound is not unlike the beginning of The Firebird in its low string ominousness; it just lacks shape. A flute echoes the material, and there’s something of a fanfare, but almost not even any music here… As is stated on Wiki:

Meant to portray the primordial chaos from which order emerged, instrumental voices merge in this 13-voice polyphonic beginning, like impulses released from the void. This was considered Klangflächenmusik (cluster composition) before the term was officially coined.

And when the lively, actually musical second movement begins, it makes this long first section of the work seem like a moody warm-up. The second movement then feels very much like a scherzo. Wikipedia tells us that it is “meditative” and that Shostakovich described it as “the “death of a child” (letter to Boleslav Yavorsky) killed on the Nevsky Prospekt.”

The third movement continues the acceleration of the work, but is now transparent and light, with a violin solo, accompanied by one woodwind after another joining the party. It’s chamber-like for a long stretch, but the chaos increases as the rest of the ensemble joins. There’s a brassy moment of triumph in this movement, one that would put a pretty nice cap on this work if it were just an overture-like tone poem along the lines of Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice, but the thing has to continue, doesn’t it?

After this climax, there’s a return to the chamber-like atmosphere, closing with our violin solo, and I really think if we just finished here and chucked the finale in the bin, we’d have an almost interesting piece of music. But we have to end on a choral finale which “sets a text by Alexander Bezymensky praising Lenin and the revolution.” You can read the text of the finale here. In fact, I’d already made that note before I’d gone back to read the end of the Wikipedia article, which cites the quote that opens this article.

It’s a reminder that this work was commissioned, or as the case may be, demanded, from the composer by Shuglin, and the interesting circumstances he was in, wanting to compose something new, and being saddled with this patriotic idea. Even removing the choral finale, which sounds wholly uninspired, we’re still left with a piece that lacks much motivation. The worst thing about it is the actual close. The finale reaches a clear climax, cymbal crash and all, but a snare drum made of pure tragedy doesn’t let the piece end. Instead, the final lines are chanted rather than sung:

This is the slogan and this is the name of living generations:
October, the Commune and Lenin.

This is followed by the most forced of perorations maybe ever written in music history.

But we’ll excuse Shostakovich this symphonic misstep. As we will see, the lack of inspiration thankfully didn’t last, but this is also a reflection of the social, political and artistic climate of the time. Wiki mentions “the notion of “industrial” symphonies intended to inspire the proletariat.” Thank goodness that phase is over.

We’ll be seeing more Russian stuff from this period and onward in the coming weeks, so do stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.

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One thought on “Shostakovich Symphony no. 2 in B, op. 14, ‘To October’

  1. I agree with you utterly about the merits of no.3 (although I hope I’m not pre-empting what you yourself were going to say about it) – if ever there was a case of giving the authorities exactly what they wanted, in the form of a here-today-gone-tomorrow Socialist Realist musical slogan (albeit giving it voluntarily, which is savagely ironic given how they damn near broke him over the course of later life for daring to write anything other)! But…I dunno…there’s something about no.2 that keeps me coming back for more, beginning with the intro, whose very teeming nebulousness marks it out as among the most boldly avant garde music he ever wrote. Of course, the very specific demands of the symphony’s “programme” meant that he couldn’t keep that level of innovation up…and then there’s the glaring blemish that is that choral finale (although it’s interesting that, even amidst the supposed jubilation, DSCH can’t resist bringing back echoes of the opening…twice, in fact!). Still, for me it stands as a fascinating glimpse of the composer who might have been but for the Lady Macbeth debacle, etc. etc. Who knows, if he’d been allowed to carry on composing in the same vein, we might have ended up with something like ’50s/’60s Ligeti – but 30 years sooner!

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