Thursday, November 8, 2012

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 2

Shostakovich's first symphony, despite its high quality, is still the work of a young person absorbing the tradition, though in an individual fashion, to be sure. His second symphony is quite a different kind of music. At the time, 1927, the Soviet Union was young and this piece was written to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was a time of transition, of experiment, and the one moment in cultural history when the Soviet Union was very open to the Western avant-garde. It was a kind of "zero hour" when everything seemed possible and artists approached their work as a blank slate. This kind of experimentation was rife in all the arts. Around the time of the composition of the second symphony Shostakovich began his first opera, an absurdist piece called The Nose based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol.

The Symphony No. 2 in B major, op 14, subtitled To October, was Shostakovich's first official commission. It was offered by the Propaganda Division of the State Publisher Music Section so it is the first example in his work of the intersection between music and politics that so plagued him in later years. He did not have a great deal of enthusiasm for the work while he was composing it and he was particularly disappointed in the poor quality of the text by Alexander Bezïmensky. Here is the first verse:

We marched, we asked for work and bread.
Our hearts were gripped in a vice of anguish.
Factory chimneys towered up towards the sky
Like hands, powerless to clench a fist.
Terrible were the names of our shackles:
Silence, suffering, oppression.

This is, like Beethoven's 9th Symphony, a hybrid--an instrumental work that ends with a choral setting. It is in one large movement about twenty minutes long, in four sections. The mysterious beginning, seeming to coalesce out of primordial nothingness, after about five minutes turns from a Largo into a frenzied Allegro molto, where solo violin, clarinet and bassoon execute a kind of madcap fugue that becomes thirteen independent lines of counterpoint. This is the kind of texture-music that in a much more dissonant form became prominent with a number of composers in Europe after the Second World War. The final choral section comes as a bit of a shock as it re-enacts the feeling of revolutionary mass spectacles.

It is probably safe to say that this, along with the similarly conceived third symphony of two years later, is the least often performed of his symphonies. Though it is fascinating to hear the genesis of some ideas he will later hone and perfect in their raw form, the symphony is too much of a melange of styles and textures to be really satisfying. Well worth hearing a couple of times, though!

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