Alexander Glazunov’s Second Piano Concerto, which he completed in the summer of 1917, had been conceived more than two decades earlier. In sketches dating back to the 1890s, the kuchkist spirit was still alive – in the relief themes, in their development and in the form of the concerto that had its roots in Liszt’s one-movement compositions. Like Liszt’s piano concerti, Glazunov’s Second Concerto is monothematic: the bleak epigraph introduction akin to an echo-like refrain forms the nucleus of the intonation from which the main and secondary themes of the sonata allegro emerge. The lyrical sphere of the secondary role is, in essence, the cycle’s slow section; one of the episodes of the development takes the place of a scherzo. Meanwhile the reprise and the closely connected coda are a heroic finale and apotheosis that remind us of the final pages of Glazunov’s symphonies. The general character of the epic poem is answered by the monumental style and the predominant nature of the piano part which stands out for its festive dazzle and virtuoso scale.
I’ll give all my soul to October and May,
But I just won’t give my lyre.
In the first decade after the Revolution the communist authorities flirted with the Russian artistic avant-garde. In turn, the avant-garde added a left-wing and even ultra-leftist phrase to its arsenal and co-operated with the regime in which it saw an ally: the old Russia was being “jettisoned from the ship of modernity” by the Bolsheviks and the Russian futurists alike. This was, according to Konstantin Paustovsky, “a time of great expectations.” But it very soon transpired that communist Russia and the avant-garde were on different paths. The Second (October) and subsequent Third (First of May) Symphonies embodied the entirely sincere expectations of the young Shostakovich that were crushed by the powers that were. Following the article Muddle instead of Music (which dealt with the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) both symphonies were, for a long time, included on a list of so-called “formalist” works.
But Shostakovich was quick to get his own back, going on to pull the wool over the authorities’ eyes – on more than one occasion. He deceived them with his Fifth Symphony when they were expecting a penitential psalm from him in response to official party criticism that had torn the brilliant Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to shreds. He deceived them with his Tenth Symphony when, at the end of the war, he was expected to compose a triumphant glorification of Stalin – “the great military leader.” And he deceived them with his Twelfth Symphony, 1917,which is dedicated to the memory of Vladimir Lenin (on 1 October 1961 the premiere of the symphony was conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky).
This symphony “was Shostakovich’s most bitter compromise” (Marina Sabinina); Mstislav Rostropovich was also correct in saying “It is a pity that the time of a genius was thrown away on this.” Shostakovich himself, however, according to recollections of Gennady Rozhdestvensky, had a serious relationship with the Twelfth Symphony, scrupulously going into the details at rehearsals. “It was only many years later,” the conductor wrote, “when I had conducted the Twelfth many times and recorded it that I understood that ... it was not a portrait of Lenin and revolutionary events connected with him, it was a portrait of the ‘propaganda of Lenin’ or rather ‘Lenin as God’ – a monstrous idol created by Stalin’s will. Hence the ‘poster-like’ and propagandist style of the writing, hence the parodying titles of the movements – just take The Dawn of Humanity alone!”
We are used to Shostakovich’s symphonies being imbued with deep psychology and philosophical intensity. His music is always a direct response, a nervous reaction, a scream of terror, despair, pain... The Twelfth Symphony stuns us with its epically peaceful tone and the balance of its lines and proportions. Nothing personal, not a word “from the composer” – and this is Shostakovich, whose music is always full of reflection! In the Twelfth Symphony, an objective type of statement prevails, but there is absolutely nothing individual about its form, it’s as if it’s made up of images already tried out on more than one occasion in other works. And the pathos is somehow feigned, forced... In the finale of the symphony (The Dawn of Humanity), features of that monumental template ooze clearly, which makes the style stand out from Stalin’s Empire style – triumphant fanfares, jubilant intonations and clearly artificially raised rhetoric...
It suffices to compare the two codas – both in D Major: one is of monumental marble tiles (in the Fifth Symphony), the other of blocks of concrete (in the Twelfth). An endlessly drawn-out cadence, the inane stomping on the spot, the cheerless and insistent pounding of an idée fixe (or rather instructions!) as if this were the official welcome to the latest party congress. It is hard not to hear Shostakovich’s undisguised sarcasm concerning the title The Dawn of Humanity.
The young enthusiast ready to surrender “all his soul to October and May” grew up into a great artist who chronicled the age. Having become the conscience of Russian music, he protected his lyre from deceit and treachery.
In 1945 Shostakovich was expected to produce a grandiose triumphal symphony marking the victory in WWII. The composer’s friends knew that the symphony was underway. And the new work, accordingly, had to match the event. Just think – a victory symphony, as well as his Ninth! How could he not think of Beethoven! Apart from the fact that…
After their ninth symphonies, starting with Beethoven many composers died. So for Shostakovich identifying, or rather even identifying himself, as a great symphonist could hardly have been desirable. Neither in pragmatic nor political terms. Some composers have tried to deceive the fateful significance of the figure nine. Such as Shostakovich’s beloved composer Mahler. The history behind The Song of the Earth, essentially his Ninth Symphony but named otherwise for mystical reasons, is well known. Shostakovich also approached his new symphony in his own way.
For the first time, in September 1945 at the hearing at Leningrad’s House of Composers instead of the grandiose symphony with chorus there was a compact, transparent orchestral work. Secondly, the symphony, if we read the text carefully, is a considerable rebus. To start with, the outer parts are of an absolute declarative character. The first theme, based on a triad in major key, could have been written by, say, Haydn if he were alive in the 20th century. Beethoven’s First Sonata begins from a similar standpoint only it goes in the opposite direction, as does the finale of Mozart’s Symphony in G Major. It is a claim to classicism, a grand facade with a portico in the Stalinist Empire style. But what is inside, behind the facade? Deep reflections, the second movement. Then a scherzo – a bourgeois dancing on ruins…
An unexpected messenger appears before the finale after the brisk scherzo. The bassoon recitative against the background of the trombones. A painfully familiar situation: recitative foretelling the finale… Of course! It is, in fact, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – the baritone before Ode to Joy… But instead of the huge chorus in the latter work, here we have a playful “neoclassical” finale with a secondary, march-like theme. Only the march is not suitable for the Victory Parade on Red Square. If you march to the sarcastic expression it suggests then from Red Square the path leads straight to the KGB at Lubyanka. The suspicion arises that Shostakovich had some Jesuit plan: to use the myth of the Ninth Symphony through oblique references to Beethoven
(classical style, recitative before the finale), only in its mirror reflection.
Not an apotheosis but doubt, a grimace, a double-edged quotation. Because after all the festivities, fireworks and parades, Russia’s Calvary continued with destruction, graves for the dead and prison camps for the living. Shostakovich managed to neutralise the curse of the Ninth Symphony – he went on to write a further six.