About this work
Composed for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2 (1927) is something of an historical and musical artifact. Historically, it recalls a time when people still believed in the Soviet system as the great hope for Russia and, indeed, for mankind; musically, it belongs to the period of experimentation following World War I, when old rules of form and harmony were being tossed to the winds. In the Symphony, in essence, Shostakovich simply tried out all sorts of musical ideas that interested him, hoping that the result would all be of a piece. The work's very designation as a symphony -- it was originally titled "To October: A Symphonic Dedication" -- appears to have been an afterthought, as though the 21-year-old composer wanted to relieve the pressure of having to follow up his spectacularly successful teenage achievement, the Symphony No. 1 (1923-1925).
The Symphony No. 2, cast in a single 20-minute movement, opens in a dark, ominous miasma of atonality that leads into a violent martial section. A bizarre passage for solo violin, clarinet, and bassoon introduces the work's most notorious segment, a fugue-like section with no fewer than 13 subjects. Things quiet down a bit before a blast of a factory whistle -- not simulated, but the actual "instrument" -- ushers in a chorus that literally sings the praises of the Revolution, culminating at the end in a shout of "October and Lenin! The new age and Lenin! The commune and Lenin!" Though embarrassingly jingoistic at times, and though a decidedly lesser accomplishment than Shostakovich's later symphonies, the work contains moments of genuine excitement and drama and provides an intriguing perspective on the evolution of one of the most-discussed composers of the twentieth century.