Symphony No. 2 (Shostakovich)

Symphony No. 2 (Shostakovich)

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 2 in B major, Opus 14 and subtitled "To October", for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. It was first performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and the Academy Capella Choir under Nikolai Malko, on 5 November 1927. Shostakovich would later revisit the events of the October Revolution in his Twelfth Symphony, subtitled "The Year 1917".


The symphony is a short (under 20 minutes), experimental work in one movement; within this movement are four sections, the last of which includes a chorus. In a marked departure from the First Symphony, Shostakovich composed the Second in a gestural, geometric "music without emotional structure" 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. [MacDonald, 49.]

#:Meant to portray the primordial chaos from which order would emerge, instrumental voices merge in this 13-voice polyphonic beginning like impulses released from the void. This was considered "Klangflächenmusik" (cluster composition) before the term has officially been coined.Feuchtner, 8.]
#Quarter note=152
#:A meditative episode which Shostakovich described as the "death of a child" (letter to Boleslav Yavorsky) killed on the Nevsky Prospekt.MacDonald, 50.]
#Poco meno mosso. Allegro molto.
#Chorus: "To October"
#:The choral finale of the work sets a text by Alexander Bezymensky praising Lenin and the revolution.

Shostakovich placed far more emphasis on texture in this work than he did on thematic material. He quickly adds sonorities and layers of sound in a manner akin to Abstract Expressionism instead of focusing on contrapuntal clarity. While much of the symphony consequently consists of sound effects rather than music, the work possesses an unquestionable vitality and incorporates the basic elements of the musical language he would use for the rest of his career.MacDonald, 50.]


Shostakovich's Second and Third Symphonies have been often been criticized for incongruities of their experimental orchestral sections and more conventionally agitprop choral finales. In the Soviet Union they were considered experiments, and since the days of Stalin the term "experiment" was not considered a positive one.Feuchtner, 8] Much later, Shostakovich admitted that out of his 15 symphonies, "two, I suppose, are completely unsatisfactory—that's the Second and Third." ["Pis'ma k drugu", 278.] He also rejected his early experimental writing in general as "erroneous striving after originality" [the piano cycle "Aphorisms"] and "infants' diseases" [the Second and Third Symphonies] . [Schwarz, 17:266.]

The Second Symphony was commissioned to include a poem by Alexander Bezymensky, which glorified Lenin's role in the proletariat struggle in bombastic style. [Maes, 261.] The cult of Lenin, imposed from the upper echelons of the Party, grew to gigantic proportions in the years immediately following his death. [Volkov, "Shostakovich and Stalin", 64.] The work was initially titled "To October". It was referred to as a "Symphonic Poem" and "Symphonic Dedication to October". It became "To October, a Symphonic Dedication" when the work was published in 1927. It was christened a "symphony", as it is now known, considerably later. [Fay, 40.]

The spirit of October

During the 1920s in Russia, "October" did not necessarily refer to the literal events of the October Revolution. It referred instead to the spirit of the Revolution, a new world of freedom and fellowship reaching politically from the center to the left. The nearest political idea to this concept was the Trotskyite doctrine of "permanent revolution." This made it the very opposite of Bolshevik regimentation.MacDonald, 46.] Clarifyme|date=August 2008

In this context, the Second Symphony's subtitle "To October" and its dedication, "Proletarians of the World, Unite!" may seem harmless enough.Fact|date=August 2008POV-statement|date=August 2008 While the mysticism associated with October in the 1920s may in fact have been well on the way to being requisitioned by the Communist Party, its freer meaning was still current.Fact|date=August 2008POV-statement|date=August 2008 Besides, there were no other symbolic references readily available.Fact|date=August 2008Specify|date=August 2008 In 1927 every artist in Russia was producing something based on the October theme.MacDonald, 46.] Who|date=August 2008

The Party was also hard at work in 1927 to fuse the historical Revolution and the October mystique together.Fact|date=August 2008 Part of this campaign was a war scare calculated to rally the population under the Red flag.Fact|date=August 2008 In this atmosphere, the honour of a center-stage appearance at the 10th anniversary celebrations may have been enough to flatter the 20-year-old composer into compliance.Fact|date=August 2008 Even if he had not done so voluntarily, pressure for him to do so at this point would have been intense.Fact|date=August 2008 Boris Pasternak was then reportedly being groomed by the Commissariat for Enlightenment for the post of poet laureate.Fact|date=August 2008 Similar hints were being dropped about Shostakovich being in line for the post of court composer.Fact|date=August 2008 The advantages of such a position—guaranteed fame, success and money—were obvious. [MacDonald, 47-8.] POV-statement|date=August 2008


Shostakovich was commissioned by 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, called "Dedication to October", to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. [Volkov, "Shostakovich and Stalin", 60.] The composer himself seems to have been dissatisfied with the work; he wrote (letter to Tatyana Glivenko, 28 May 1927) that he was tired of writing it and considered the Bezymensky text "abominable". Nonetheless, it stands as an important representation of Soviet music in the 1920s and in particular, the notion of "industrial" symphonies intended to inspire the proletariat—the choral section of the work is heralded within the score by way of a blast from a factory whistle, an innovation proposed by Shuglin.

Part of the problem Shostakovich had in writing the symphony was that everyone expected a successor to his First Symphony. The problem was that he no longer believed in writing in the same compositional style. He also had other projects toward which he wanted to direct his attention as soon as possible, and the First Symphony had taken him nearly a year to write. As it turned out, the Commissariat for Enlightenment's propaganda department, Agitotdel, regularly commissioned single-movement works on topical subjects. These works often featured revolutionary tunes and invariably employed sung texts to make the required meaning clear. Furthermore, because of the non-musical orientation of potential audiences, these pieces were not expected to last more than 15 or 20 minutes at most. [MacDonald, 48.]

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 at once. Such a work would be entirely appropriate for the occasion for which it was being written. It would also be impossible for Muzsektor to turn down and be guaranteed at least some friendly press. It also side-stepped the stylistic problem of producing a sequel to the First Symphony while also opening the door to experiment with orchestral effects in an entirely new vein. Most importantly for Shostakovich, the piece would take little time to compose, allowing him to return to other projects at his earliest convenience. [MacDonald, 48-49.]

The choral section gave the composer particular trouble. Shostakovich told Yavorsky confidentially, "I'm composing the chorus with great difficulty. The words!!!!" ["Shostakovich v pis'makh i dokumentakh", 115.] The consequent lack of creative fire becomes obvious; the section lacks the drive and conviction that would typify many of his later works, the singers sounding melancholy, almost desultory in manner. It is obviously a stilted, formal addition to a composition already lacking in compositional unity. The final words are not even given a melodic line; instead they are simply chanted by the chorus, culminating in a formulaic apotheosis. [Volkov, "Shostakovich and Stalin", 62.] Solomon Volkov admitted of the entire choral section, " [O] ne is tempted simply to cut it off with a pair of scissors." [Volkov, "Shostakovich and Stalin", 70.]


In the Soviet Union the orchestral section initially confused listeners—many of whom were workers worn out by the October Revolution yet listening patiently to the first performance—while they were very much at home with the setting of characteristic revolutionary rhetoric to music.Fact|date=August 2008 In the West the opposite was true: listeners appreciated the orchestral section but not the choral emotionalism that followed.Feuchtner, 8.] While some Soviet critics acclaimed it at the time it was premiered, the Second Symphony did not attain a lasting success. [Schwarz, "New Grove", 17:264.]



* Fay, Laurel, "Shostakovich: A Life" (Oxford: 2000).
* Layton, Robert, ed. Robert Simpson, "The Symphony: Volume 2, Mahler to the Present Day" (New York: Drake Publishing Inc., 1972). ISBN 87749-245-X.
* Feuchtner, Bernd, tr. Gery Brammall, Notes for Teldec 90853, "Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3"; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.
* Maes, Francis, tr. Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans, "A History of Russian Music: From "Kamarinskaya "to" Babi Yar (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002). ISBN 0-520-21815-9.
* Schwarz, Boris, ed. Stanley Sadie, "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" (London: MacMillian, 1980), 20 vols. ISBN 0-333-23111-2.

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