May 2011

St Cyprian’s Church, Glentworth Street, London, Saturday 14 May 2011.

Symphony No. 2 in B minor Op. 14 “To October”

“In my creative work, I have experienced a variety of different influences…but I always wanted to create music that reflects our era, and the thoughts and feelings of the Soviet person. That is how all the subsequent [after the First] symphonies were created.”

London Shostakovich Orchestra Concert PosterShostakovich’s words in 1940 provide a revealing insight into both of the works that we shall hear this evening. The Second Symphony, written in 1927 when the composer was twenty, remains a curiosity, rapidly disappearing from the repertoire after its successful first performances and not returning to the concert stage until the 1960s. It was not recorded until 1965 nor performed in the United Kingdom until 1969; and Shostakovich himself seems to have been ambivalent as to whether he viewed the work as a success or a failure. The Fifth Symphony, on the other hand, was recorded as early as 1938 and had reached London by 1940. It has remained the most widely played of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies, and the composer considered the work central to his creative output.

The Second Symphony was commissioned by the Publicity Department of the State Publishing House Music Sector to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution in late 1927. It can thus be seen as a relatively early example of the Bolshevik desire to present the coup of 1917 as a popular revolution, as well as of the incipient cult of Lenin following his death in 1924: the leader is thus invoked in quasi-religious terms in the choral section of the work. Shostakovich undertook the commission enthusiastically, making a trip to a factory to assess the tessitura of the factory siren he went on to employ just before the entry of the choir (in the event, in F sharp, with an orchestral replacement in French horns, trombones and tuba also stipulated). Indeed, he completed the score in less than four months.

It will also be remembered that prior to the victory of Stalin in the Bolshevik power struggle in 1929 the new Soviet Union enjoyed a degree of cultural freedom and contact with the Western avant-garde: the work may thus reflect the influence of composers such as Hindemith and Honegger, whose works were performed in Moscow and Leningrad during this period. The uses of declamation in the choral finale, and of string glissandi in the central section of the work, are also indicative of the experimental impetus behind its conception.


The Second Symphony can also be viewed as the first of a variety of works written over Shostakovich’s creative life which reflected the initial idealism of 1917, which, notwithstanding the horrors of the Stalin years, the composer never appears to have lost entirely, together with a wish to communicate such aspirations directly to Soviet audiences. If, then, the musical idiom of the work does not, on first hearing, appear entirely characteristic, there are intriguing pre-glimpses of the epic style of, for example, the Seventh Symphony and film music to The Fall of Berlin, as well as the opening of the third movement of the Thirteenth Symphony in the striking use of tuba solo.

The work also reflects several other features of the composer’s style: his use of string unisons; his predilection for the sonorities of the double bass, bassoon and piccolo, and for juxtaposing extreme registers of the orchestra; and the fortissimo use of percussion at moments of climax. The relatively short single-movement form is striking. Shostakovich highlighted ‘the execution of the entire composition’ as ‘dialectically linear,’ initially describing the work as a ‘symphonic dedication’ (i.e. akin to a cantata) rather than a symphony. He seems to have found the composition of the last section most difficult, finding Aleksandr Bezymensky’s revolutionary verse ‘extremely unmelodious,’ and even at this early stage in his creative life he may have been wary of invidious comparisons with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Rehearsing with the London Shostakovich Choir (Choirmaster: Wendy Norman)

Nevertheless, changes in tempo and character suggest four main episodes: a largo introduction, played by string instruments, mostly piano and muted, and in different tempi; a somewhat grotesque march; a third Allegro molto section where thirteen woodwind and string parts each enters with its own subject in horizontal counterpoint; and a final and more straightforward choral conclusion. To a degree these subdivisions lend themselves to a programmatic interpretation of mankind’s revolutionary struggle, and the work thus recalls some of the imagery of Konstantin Iuon’s paintings of the 1920s. Shostakovich also highlighted what is perhaps the most original feature of the work, most apparent in the fugue of the third section:

“In October, I tried to convey the furore of struggle and victory. I introduced a system of ultra-polyphony into the orchestration (27 simultaneously sounding lines).”

Elsewhere he wrote that I achieved an ultra-polyphony that shifted to a polyphonic timbre. The entire composition is predominantly polyphonic.’ If its thematic material is less distinctive, and certainly less characteristic, than many of Shostakovich’s later symphonies, we have tonight an unusual opportunity to assess how effectively it works in performance and to question the judgement of the semi-official History of Soviet Russian Music in 1956 that

“its extremely complex character…the anti-melodism, the intentional harshness of sound transform the music into cacophony which is deprived of all artistic value.”

Symphony No. 5 in D minor Op. 47

I Moderato
II Allegretto
III Largo
IV Allegro non troppo

At the time of Shostakovich’s sixtieth birthday in 1966, his friend and fellow composer Benjamin Britten made a characteristically perceptive comparison between the Fifth Symphony and its immediate predecessor:

“I am amazed that the same man could write them both – the Fourth so prolific with ideas, with a tumultuous exuberance, amounting at times to wildness, but with always a musical heart to sustain it, and never an empty or pointless gesture – the Fifth, so controlled, so classical, neat even, in spite of its energy. It is the musical heart which links these two works together.”

The ‘neatness’ of the work which Britten highlighted is perhaps most apparent in the massive first movement in D minor, in which its ‘energy’ is channelled into sonata form based on two main subject groups, albeit with a significantly expanded exposition; and the final movement alla marcia is also cast in sonata form. On the other hand, one should also acknowledge other more characteristic features of Shostakovich’s existing musical language: the prominent part accorded the piano, for example, previously employed in the First Symphony; the haunting four-bar celesta part which ends the first movement and links it with the coda of the Fourth Symphony; and the short second movement scherzo and trio, replete with trills, pizzicato and glissandi, which reflect Shostakovich’s profound admiration for Mahler and, in its use of xylophone, his predilection for the grotesque.

Other features look forward, reflecting aspects of Shostakovich’s mature musical language: both first and third movements end ‘morendo,’ a marking which would become characteristic of Shostakovich’s later string quartets; and the quotations in the finale from the song ‘Rebirth,’ the first of the as yet unperformed and unpublished Four Pushkin Romances of 1936, similarly constitute an early example of the self-quotation which would increasingly link Shostakovich’s compositions after 1960. Both suggest that a re-evaluation of his musical language had indeed taken place in 1936-7, albeit one perhaps more complex than that identified by initial Soviet commentators, who viewed the “understandability” and optimism of the work as evidence of Shostakovich’s creative reorientation. Shostakovich’s fellow composer Dmitri Kabalevsky thus concluded that,

“After listening to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, I can boldly assert that the composer as a true great Soviet artist has overcome his mistakes and taken a new path.”

If Shostakovich did nothing to discourage such an interpretation, the nine-bar celesta and harp solos which conclude the third movement in F sharp major suggest something rather more profound at work, and it may be significant that Shostakovich was to employ the former instrument in a variety of contexts from 1960 onwards, increasingly in association with themes of eternity and death, as he reflected, with some dissatisfaction, on his creative life and legacy. It is certainly likely that the apparent creative reorientation of 1936-7 always played a key part in such soul searching on Shostakovich’s part.

The complex circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of the Fourth Symphony at the end of 1936, and the composition of its successor in the late spring and summer of 1937, and the triumph of the first performance at the height of the Great Terror, are understood to a greater extent today than they were during Britten’s lifetime, and the publication of Testimony has also tended to colour how we receive the work and to encourage extra-musical interpretations: it is thus more common to question the sincerity of the last movement given the blatant use of accelerando and the molto ritendo which inaugurates the final D major triumph, than to highlight its affinity with the final pages of Mahler’s First Symphony. It is certainly difficult to disassociate the highly expressive third movement in F sharp minor in which much of the string writing is cast in the character of a liturgical lament from the context of the notorious Pravda denunciations of Shostakovich’s music in January and February 1936 and what we now know about the numbers of victims of Stalin’s purges, including Shostakovich’s patron Marshal Tukhachevsky and a number of his close relations. Indeed, as early as January 1938 the editorial of the newspaper Sovetskoe iskusstvo stated that,

“the work has no genuine optimism. Its main tone, defined in the first and third, the strongest movements, is gloomy and depressed.”

If one approaches the work in this way, one might also detect the brooding presence of Stalinist brutality in much of the brass and double bassoon writing elsewhere and the (f)ff use of bass drum and timpani in the work’s final three bars. On the other hand, over seventy years after the circumstances which shaped the work’s conception, its particular genius seems to lie not only in reconciling a deeply personal musical language to a form acceptable to the arbitrary and ultimately transient dictates of Socialist Realism, but also in creating a score ‘commensurable with the highest specimens of Russian and German-Austrian symphonic traditions’ (Levon Hakobian), and one whose musical heart enables it to connect directly and profoundly with audiences, as Britten himself identified.

(c) Cameron Pyke 2011