Symphony No. 2, “Blokovskaya” (1922-26)

By David Haas, University of Georgia

Written for the concert Russian Futurists, performed on Jan 25, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Shcherbachov’s Second Symphony received its premiere on December 14, 1927, more than a few music critics of Leningrad admitted preferring it to young Shostakovich’s Second Symphony and other works of overtly Soviet Marxist political content. A galvanizing figure respected as much for his integrity as his artistry, Vladimir Vladimirovich Shcherbachov had completed his musical training, begun his compositional career, and, like so many of his contemporaries, become entranced with the Russian Symbolist poet Alexander Blok all before the regime change. Consequently, it is as difficult to forge a link between his style and influences and such post-revolutionary artistic trends as futurism, constructivism, proletarian music theater, Russian atonality, or Russian quarter-tone music, as it is to align his personal belief system with Marxist-Leninism. Like Blok and many a “fellow traveler,” he found his voice early and guarded it fiercely from external aesthetic pressures, for as long as he was able.

Out of all the high praise bestowed initially on this most unconventional, ill-fated, long-forgotten work, Boris Asafyev’s simple summation of it as “a symphony born out of the romance” has proven the most enduring. During its composition, the composer had envisioned a two-evening cycle, in which poetic themes introduced in solo songs on Blok texts would be brought to a symphonic apotheosis in a five-movement work that incorporated another four poems. Even though the grand conception was abandoned, the completed Symphony is permeated with the romance element: in its pronounced lyrical tone, its scoring, its textures, and its decidedly non-schematic form.

The untexted first movement fascinates with its balance of improvisatory character and sui generis structure. As in Beethoven’s Ninth, a germinal theme emerges out of a deep inchoate open fifth. Tripartite in structure and scored for an unorthodox succession of bass clarinet, then horn, then tuba, the theme is pregnant with motives that will haunt the remainder of the work. As the opening Lento accelerates by degrees toward an eventual Allegro, new themes are spawned, each of them with a unique scoring. The movement ends with a fragmentation of themes, all of which bow out without satisfying closure.

A solo voice and chorus in dialogue make their appearance in the second movement, against a pulsating string accompaniment. Blok’s poem “Worlds Fly. Years Fly” is an anxious meditation on a universe spinning out of control. While no convincing escape from the mad rush of time is offered, momentary respites register with a slackening of the tempo. Toward the middle of the movement, obsessive rhythms coalesce into a danse infernale, which is destined to play a significant role in the Symphony’s last two movements. The rapturous D-major conclusion to the movement expresses the poet’s joy at not having to struggle alone.

The third movement’s Lento assai tempo allows the expansive main theme introduced by unaccompanied flute to provide repose to satisfy the protagonist’s yearning. Blok’s poem “A Song, a Song” turns the passage of time into lullaby. However, neither poem nor symphonic movement are entirely free of turbulence. A Shcherbachovian response to Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben trumpet fanfares opens the fourth movement. Blok’s hero now mourns the waning potential of religious symbols to provide either security or hope.

Written after a sojourn in Italy, Blok’s “Canto of Hell” is a Russian Symbolist’s Inferno in miniature, fusing pointed references to Dante with fin-de-siècle decadence. Shcherbachov’s fifth-movement setting of it commences with a Beethovenian instrumental fantasy developing previous themes, albeit arrayed with an inexhaustible stream of ever-changing colorations. The transformation of Blok’s long poem into a symphonic monologue may suggest Wagnerian music drama, but Mussorgksian speech-song is at least an equal influence. To a Russian, Tchaikovsky’s and Rachmaninov’s Francesca da Rimini compositions widen the net further. Whatever the musical inspirations, Shcherbachov’s Blokian journey to the underworld surpasses all precedents in orchestral audacities, horrors, and frights, aural eroticism, vampirizm, and in the strange beauty of its long lyrical lines.