Symphony No. 2 (Shostakovich)

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Bolshevik (1920), by Boris Kustodiev.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 2 in B major, Op. 14 and subtitled To October, for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. It was first performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and the Academy Capella Choir under Nikolai Malko, on 5 November 1927. After the premiere, Shostakovich made some revisions to the score, and this final version was first played in Moscow later in 1927 under the baton of Konstantin Saradzhev. It was also the first time any version of the work had been played in Moscow.[1]

Shostakovich later revisited the events of the October Revolution in his Twelfth Symphony, subtitled The Year 1917.


The symphony is a short (about 20 minutes) experimental work in one movement; within this movement are four sections, the last of which includes a chorus. In a marked departure from his First Symphony, Shostakovich composed his Second in a gestural, geometric "music without emotional structure" manner, with the intent of reflecting speech patterns and physical movements in a neo-realistic style. This choice may have been influenced at least partially by Vsevolod Meyerhold's theory of biomechanics.[2]

  1. Largo
    Meant to portray the primordial chaos from which order emerged, instrumental voices merge in this 13-voice polyphonic beginning, like impulses released from the void. This was considered Klangflächenmusik (cluster composition) before the term was officially coined.[3]
  2. quarter note = 152
    A meditative episode which Shostakovich described as the "death of a child" (letter to Boleslav Yavorsky) killed on the Nevsky Prospekt.[4]
  3. Poco meno mosso. Allegro molto.
  4. Chorus: "To October"
    The choral finale of the work sets a text by Alexander Bezymensky praising Lenin and the revolution.

Shostakovich placed far more emphasis on texture in this work than he did on thematic material. He quickly adds sonorities and layers of sound in a manner akin to Abstract Expressionism instead of focusing on contrapuntal clarity. While much of the symphony consequently consists of sound effects rather than music, the work possesses an unquestionable vitality and incorporates the basic elements of the musical language he used in the rest of his career.[4]


The symphony is scored for mixed choir (in the final part) and orchestra of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, (factory) siren, and strings.


Shostakovich's Second and Third Symphonies have often been criticized for incongruities in their experimental orchestral sections and more conventionally agitprop choral finales. In the Soviet Union they were considered experiments, and since the days of Stalin the term "experiment" was not considered positive.[3] Much later, Shostakovich admitted that out of his 15 symphonies, "two, I suppose, are completely unsatisfactory – that's the Second and Third."[5] He also rejected his early experimental writing in general as "erroneous striving after originality" [the piano cycle Aphorisms] and "infants' diseases" [the Second and Third Symphonies].[6]

The Second Symphony was commissioned to include a poem by Alexander Bezymensky, which glorified Lenin's role in the proletariat struggle in bombastic style.[7] The cult of Lenin, imposed from the upper echelons of the Party, grew to gigantic proportions in the years immediately following his death.[8] The work was initially titled "To October". It was referred to as a Symphonic Poem and Symphonic Dedication to October. It became To October, a Symphonic Dedication when the work was published in 1927. It only became known as a "symphony" considerably later.[9]

The spirit of October[edit]

During the 1920s in Russia, "October" referred to the spirit of the Revolution, which was a new world of freedom and fellowship reaching politically from the center to the left. The nearest political idea to this concept was the Trotskyite doctrine of "permanent revolution".[10]


Shostakovich was commissioned by Lev Shuglin, a dedicated Bolshevik and head of the Propaganda Department of the State Music Publishing House (Muzsektor), to write a large orchestral work with a choral finale, called Dedication to October, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution.[11] The composer seems to have been dissatisfied with the work; he wrote to Tatyana Glivenko, on 28 May 1927, that he was tired of writing it, and considered the Bezymensky text "abominable". Nonetheless, it stands as an important representation of Soviet music in the 1920s, and in particular of the notion of "industrial" symphonies intended to inspire the proletariat: the choral section of the work is heralded within the score by way of a blast from a factory whistle, an innovation proposed by Shuglin.

Soviet agitprop poster. Caption: "Comrade Lenin cleans the Earth from scum."

Part of the problem Shostakovich had in writing the symphony was that people expected a successor to his First Symphony, and he no longer believed in writing in the same compositional style. He also had other projects toward which he wanted to direct his attention as soon as possible, and the First Symphony had taken him nearly a year to write. As it turned out, the Commissariat for Enlightenment's propaganda department, Agitotdel, regularly commissioned single-movement works on topical subjects. These works often featured revolutionary tunes and invariably employed sung texts to make the required meaning clear. Furthermore, because of the non-musical orientation of potential audiences, these pieces were not expected to last more than 15 or 20 minutes at most.[12]

Though Shostakovich had been commissioned by Muzsektor rather than Agitotdel, and was thus expected to produce a composition of abstract music instead of a propaganda piece, writing a short agitprop symphony seemed to solve all of Shostakovich's problems. Such a work was entirely appropriate for the occasion for which it was being written. It would also be impossible for Muzsektor to turn it down, and was guaranteed at least some friendly press. It also sidestepped the stylistic problem of producing a sequel to the First Symphony while also opening the door to experiment with orchestral effects in an entirely new vein. Most importantly for Shostakovich, the piece took little time to compose, allowing him to return to other projects at his earliest convenience.[13]

The choral section gave the composer particular trouble. Shostakovich told Yavorsky confidentially, "I'm composing the chorus with great difficulty. The words!!!!"[14] The consequent lack of creative fire becomes obvious; the section lacks the drive and conviction that typified many of his later works, the singers sounding melancholy, almost desultory. It is obviously a stilted, formal addition to a composition already lacking compositional unity. The final words are not even given a melodic line; instead they are simply chanted by the chorus, culminating in a formulaic apotheosis.[15] Solomon Volkov admitted of the entire choral section, "[O]ne is tempted simply to cut it off with a pair of scissors".[16]

Chorus: “To October”[edit]

Text by Alexander Bezymensky[17]


In the Soviet Union the orchestral section initially confused listeners — many of whom were workers worn out by the October Revolution, yet listening patiently to the first performance — while they were very much at home with the setting of characteristic revolutionary rhetoric to music.[citation needed] In the West the opposite was true: listeners appreciated the orchestral section but not the choral emotionalism that followed.[3] While some Soviet critics acclaimed it at the time of the premiere, the Second Symphony did not attain lasting success.[18]

Notable recordings[edit]

Notable recordings of this symphony include:

Chorus Orchestra Conductor Record Company Year of Recording Format
Chorus of the RSFSR Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra Kirill Kondrashin Melodiya 1965-1975 (for complete symphonies) CD
Brighton Festival Chorus Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Vladimir Ashkenazy Decca Records 1992 CD
London Voices London Symphony Orchestra Mstislav Rostropovich Teldec 1993 CD
Bavarian Radio Chorus Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Mariss Jansons EMI Classics 1994 CD
London Philharmonic Choir London Philharmonic Orchestra Bernard Haitink Decca Records 1981 CD
Prague Philharmonic Chorus Prague Symphony Orchestra Maxim Shostakovich Supraphon CD
Mariinsky Chorus Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra Valery Gergiev Mariinsky 2010 SACD
WDR Chorus WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne Rudolf Barshai Brilliant Classics 1995 CD

Source: (recommended recordings selected based on critics reviews)



  1. ^ Laurel E Fay, Shostakovich: A Life
  2. ^ MacDonald 1990, p. 49.
  3. ^ a b c Feuchtner 1994, p. 8.
  4. ^ a b MacDonald 1990, p. 50.
  5. ^ Shostakovich-Glikman 1993, p. 278.
  6. ^ Schwarz 1980, p. 266.
  7. ^ Maes 2002, p. 261.
  8. ^ Volkov 2004, p. 64.
  9. ^ Fay 2000, p. 40.
  10. ^ MacDonald 1990, p. 46.
  11. ^ Volkov 2004, p. 60.
  12. ^ MacDonald 1990, p. 48.
  13. ^ MacDonald 1990, pp. 48–49.
  14. ^ Shostakovich-Bobykina 2000, p. 115.
  15. ^ Volkov 2004, p. 62.
  16. ^ Volkov 2004, p. 70.
  17. ^ Gakkel 2010, p. 115.
  18. ^ Schwarz 1980, p. 264.



  • Fay, Laurel E. (2000). Shostakovich: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 40. ISBN 0-19-513438-9. OCLC 40954268.
  • Grove, Sir George; Boris Schwarz (1980). "Dmitri Shostakovich". In Stanley Sadie (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Volume XVII: Schütz-Spinto. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan Publishers. pp. 264, 266. ISBN 0-333-23111-2. OCLC 5676891.
  • MacDonald, Ian (1990). The New Shostakovich. Boston: Northeastern University Press. pp. 46, 48–50. ISBN 1-55553-089-3. OCLC 22856574.
  • Maes, Francis (2002) [1996]. A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Translated by Arnold J. Pomerans; Erica Pomerans. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 261. ISBN 0-520-21815-9. OCLC 46678246. Originally published as Geschiedenis van de Russiche muziek: Van Kamarinskaja tot Babi Jar, Uitgeverij SUN, Nijmegen, 1996
  • Shostakovich, Dmitri Dmitriyevich; Glikman, Isaak Davidovitch (1993). Письма к другу (Pisʹma k drugu) [Letters to a Friend] (in Russian). Moscow, Russia: DSCH. p. 278. ISBN 5-85285-231-7. OCLC 490559096.
    • Shostakovich, Dmitri Dmitriyevich; Glikman, Isaak Davidovitch (2001). Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, 1941–1975. Anthony Phillips (trans.). London, United Kingdom: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-20982-3. OCLC 231905283.
  • Shostakovich, Dmitri Dmitriyevich; Bobykina, I. (1993). Письма к другу (Dmitriǐ Shostakovich : v pisʹmakh i dokumentakh) [Letters to a Friend] (in Russian). Moscow, Russia: DSCH. p. 115. ISBN 5-85285-231-7. OCLC 490559096.
  • Volkov, Solomon (2004) [2004]. Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Knopf. pp. 60, 62, 64, 70. ISBN 0-520-21815-9. OCLC 54768325.
    • Volkov, Solomon (2004). Шостакович и Сталин : художник и царь (Shostakovich i Stalin : khudozhnik i t︠s︡arʹ) [Shostakovich and Stalin: The Artist and the King]. Dialogi o kulʹture (in Russian). Moscow, Russia: ЭКСМО. ISBN 5-699-06614-4. OCLC 56899020.


Further reading[edit]