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Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second and Third Symphonies, composed in the late 1920’s when he was still a graduate student at the Leningrad Conservatory, were never among his better-known works. Both are, on the surface at least, pieces of orthodox patriotism, written for important Soviet holidays. With Shostakovich, of course, nothing is beyond debate, and there is a school of thought that he approached the Second and Third Symphonies with heavy doses of sarcasm and irony. You can find support for such a view in grotesque and humorous passages in both symphonies, but they hardly amount to proof: Shostakovich’s music was always full of grotesque and humorous elements. His composition professor at the Conservatory had complained: "What is this enthusiasm for the grotesque? … Probably there will be some critic in Leningrad who'll say this is brilliant, this is wonderful, and that will be the end of you!"

Shostakovich has been seen as everything from a loyal party functionary to a closet dissident whose every utterance and every note of music was a protest against the Soviet state. There is not much question that his music sometimes contains a message in a bottle. For example, in the Fifth Symphony, written when he was the target of official attacks, he inserted a quotation from one of his own songs, then unpublished, that makes it clear that he thought history would consign his critics to oblivion. But ascribing similar intent to Shostakovich a decade earlier, in a happier time for both Shostakovich and the Soviet Union, is a dicey proposition. Even Mstislav Rostropovich, who regards Shostakovich’s life work as an anti-Soviet statement, concedes that the young Shostakovich was “taken in” by the promise of the Russian Revolution.

The Second and Third Symphonies are very much works of their time, which was a period of great hope between enormous catastrophes. Shostakovich had already lived through a world war that killed millions of Russians, a revolution that caused complete social upheaval, and a long civil war. By 1927, it seemed that a bright future was finally arriving.

This was particularly true for the composer, who was 21 years old and riding very high. He was hailed as a genius after the premiere of his First Symphony the previous year, and had fallen in with the Leningrad avant-garde literary and theater crowd. Soviet art in 1927 was a far cry from what it would be a decade later. Even as Stalin was gradually establishing himself as a dictator and the government was collectivizing land, artists were able to experiment with all kinds of modernist trends and engage in freewheeling debate about what sort of art was appropriate in a socialist state. Shostakovich was occasionally criticized for being bourgeois, decadent, modernist, or insufficiently in tune with proletarian sensibility, but he was still a national treasure, the first bona fide musical genius who was a child of the Revolution. (It is no accident 1936, when the government finally imposed complete control over the arts, it signaled the takeover with a withering attack on Shostakovich, letting everyone know that even the favored son of Soviet music had to conform.)

In March 1927, the Propaganda Department of the State Publishing House asked Shostakovich for a symphonic work for that year’s tenth-anniversary celebrations of the “October Revolution” (which, by the Western calendar, happened in November), in which the Communists had finally seized power. Shostakovich responded with what he first called a “symphonic poem” to words by Alexander Bezymensky. There is ample evidence that Shostakovich disliked the poem and found it difficult to work with, but it isn’t clear whether he disagreed with its sentiments, had an intellectual’s distaste for displays of patriotism, or just found it literarily inept.

The Second is, at different points, both a consciously “modernist” work, with newfangled sounds and compositional devices, and a harking back to the past. The modernism can be heard at the outset. Perhaps because Bezymensky’s poem goes from hunger and despair through struggle to triumph, the piece begins with darkly and slowly. Shostakovich builds a fog of increasing complexity, each section entering in quicker note values (basses in quarter notes, cellos in eighths, violas in triplet eighths, second violins in 16ths). The effect is an indistinct humming that goes on until the trumpet finally enters with a theme. A few minutes later, a solo violin begins what appears to be an extended trio with the clarinet and bassoon, but turns into what Shostakovich described as 27-part “ultra-polyphony,” in which the five string sections, 20 wind instruments, and two percussion all play independent lines.

The chorus is ushered in by the sound of a factory whistle. The Russian Revolution was associated from the first with turning an agrarian, Russian society into an industrial one, so the factory whistle was a powerful symbol. Shostakovich actually wrote parts for several factory whistles of different pitches and loudnesses, but, recognizing that factory whistles aren’t always ready to hand, he also wrote the factory-whistle notes into the wind instrument parts as a substitute.

The choir evokes old Russia, and more than a little of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, as it sings of the people’s helplessness in the first verse. Fanfare figures in the brass build to the exclamation “Oh, Lenin!” The choir sings about “struggle” over a sustained note in the bass—a genuine 18tth-century dominant pedal point, but the shouting, rather than singing, of the last line, was up-to-the-minute modern in 1927.

- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra, the Coleman Chamber Concerts, and the Salzburg Festival.

DETAILS:

Composed:
1927

Length: 20 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bell in F-sharp, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle), strings, and chorus

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: January, 2002