Symphony No. 2 (1927)

By Robert McColley, Fanfare

Written for the concert Forgotten Patriotisms: Music as Political History, performed on Dec 13, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The prevailing view of the life and art of Shostakovich, is that both express the immense tragedy of the twentieth century. The composer lived his adult life in a state which tolerated no serious dissent, and frequently punished innocent people for purposes of maintaining power by fear and terror. The regime repeatedly denounced its finest creative artists, including Shostakovich. It never punished him by sending him to the labor camps or to a mental hospital, but men and women he knew and admired suffered those fates or worse. Even in his final years he could not be sure of his own safety, or the safety of his family. Therefore he had to express both his hatred for cruel and arbitrary power, and his sympathy for the suffering of innocents, through a complex and ironic musical language. In this view, even the Seventh, Leningrad Symphony of1942 has a hidden meaning. Officially it was a patriotic response to the horrors of World War II, describing in searing musical language the German invasion, and the heroic resistance of the Russian people. But the symphony had actually been conceived before Nazi Germany’s surprise attack: its deeper meaning was again protest against cruel and arbitrary power-an artistic protest against Stalin as well as Hitler.

It follows that pieces written to celebrate the Revolution of 1917, the leaders of Soviet Russia, and the achievements of communism, were either deliberately ironic, or hackwork dashed off as quickly as possible, to keep the always watchful, but basically stupid, cultural watchdogs at bay. And so the Second Symphony, state-sponsored and widely performed in 1927, disappeared. Along with the similar Third Symphony, its advanced musical idiom did not suit the aesthetics of the Popular Front era, and, after the death of Stalin, when most of the politically or artistically questionable works of Shostakovich were revived for complete editions (including complete recordings of his symphonies, string quartets, etc.) the composer himself belittled the Second and Third Symphonies.

In fact, no irony can be found in either the music Shostakovich composed for his Second Symphony, or in Alexander Bezymenski’s poem, “To October.” And the music is certainly not hackwork. It brilliantly portrays a variety of moods and meanings through several contrasting episodes. Within these the mature Shostakovich appears in much more than fleeting glimpses: the precocious 19-year-old whose First Symphony (1925) immediately entered the international repertoire proved, two years later, how thoroughly he had absorbed the new musical language of the international avant-garde, and how effectively he could use those elements that suited his purposes. One’s enthusiasm for the music might still turn sour if one thinks of Lenin and his Revolution as nothing more than the institutionalization of that modern nightmare-become-reality: the terror-driven police state. But here too one might also find a deeper, and certainly better message: an idealized longing of the people to overcome ignorance, oppression, and tyranny. In this view a mythic Lenin may serve as the prophet of human liberation, as many continued to believe for decades after 1927. And in that year of personal success and artistic growth, the young Dmitri Shostakovich had some grounds for optimism about the future.