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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 Shostakovich 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Symphony, written when he was the target of official attacks, he inserted a quotation from one of his own songs, then unpublished, that makes it clear that he thought history would consign his critics to oblivion.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.)

Shostakovich wrote his “First of May” on his own initiative, without a commission or particular performance in mind. May 1st was always a major day of celebration in the Soviet Union, not because it was an anniversary of any event (Kirsanov’s fourth and fifth stanzas should not be read to imply that the Tsar was deposed in May 1917—it happened in March), but because it had been designated a labor holiday by the Second Socialist International in 1889. In 1929, Shostakovich wrote in his post-graduate report to the Leningrad Conservatory, “While in the [Second Symphony] the main content is struggle, the “May First” expresses the festive spirit of peaceful construction, if I may put it that way. To make the main idea clearer for the listeners, I introduced a chorus to words by the poet Kirsanov at the end.”

There was so much interest in new works by Shostakovich that the Third Symphony was quickly premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic, the most prestigious orchestra in the USSR, on a significant date: January 21, 1930, the sixth anniversary of Lenin’s death.

Kirsanov’s poem uses the annual May Day parade as a metaphor for the march of socialism and justice, and Shostakovich took the idea one step further by composing the musical equivalent of a parade, in which themes and sections pass by and are gone, without the repetition and development that are generally considered the essence of symphonic form. While working on the Symphony, he told another composer “it would be interesting to write a symphony in which no theme is ever repeated.” Listeners so inclined can hear marches, and perhaps crowds singing in unison, or even an oration, particularly in the extended passage for unison trombones.

If the first 20 minutes are loosely constructed and episodic, the choral conclusion is direct, forceful, and declamatory, an apt and powerful setting of Kirsanov’s words about inexorable progress into the future. The orchestra’s final bars may seem tacked on and unnecessary—something that has also been said of the Second Symphony. Shostakovich may have felt that the public and festive nature of the Symphonies made old-fashioned bright, major-key endings necessary, but it is difficult to make such an ending convincing when the musical language of the work has been something altogether different. In Shostakovich’s music, the old and new would always be cheek by jowl, sometimes at odds, and occasionally at war.

- 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:
1929

Length: 30 minutes

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

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: January, 2002