An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2
Conductor Vasily Petrenko guides us through the history and analysis of Shostakovich's Second Symphony 'To October'
Symphony No. 2 ‘To October’ Op. 14 (1927)
Premiered: Leningrad, 1927
The bizarre Second Symphony is, at 19 minutes, the shortest of them all. It was written to mark the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, with a poem by A Bezymensky celebrating Lenin’s ‘victory over oppression and darkness’. Shostakovich later disowned it, according to his son Maxim.
VASILY PETRENKO: ‘For me the Second and Third symphonies are experimental and abstract in the way that visual art of the 1920s was. Think of artists like Malevich, that particular brand of abstract constructivism – and cubism, too. Here we enter a crazy laboratory of the grotesque in music.
The young composer is trying to use the 12-tone system in that slithering beginning. It’s not so obvious at first because we tend to interpret Shostakovich’s themes as melodies or ciphers, like DSCH, but they are often actually serial. The Second Symphony, while not a great work, is for me a genuine, brave response to a commission. He’s showing that he’s learned to write for a larger orchestra and for chorus.’
Vasily Petrenko is, like Shostakovich, a son of Leningrad/St Petersburg, and grew up singing the composer’s songs in its Capella Boys Music School. In 1997 he won first prize in the Shostakovich Choral Conducting Competition and was made chief conductor of the St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra, during which time he took on the principal conductorship of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
On his arrival in the city in 2006, at just 30, he launched a project with Naxos to record all Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. The series has drawn international acclaim and, as the final instalment is released, he looks back on his nine-year journey. ‘To work with an orchestra on one composer for so many years has meant we could build a style, an approach to his language,’ he says. ‘At first, it felt like an exhilarating challenge: there are huge demands. Now, we are of one mind.’
Petrenko, born a year after the composer’s death, grew up in the Soviet Union. A beneficiary of its uniquely rigorous teaching system, he witnessed its dissolution when he was 15, the re-writing of history books, and even the emergence of a nostalgia for that dark era. He’s in touch with those who remember Shostakovich, and the times through which he lived, but has experienced the Western view of this controversial figure.
‘When I conduct these symphonies in Russia, there’s still an unspoken understanding of the songs, the messages. We talk more about the composer’s personal life. When I conduct in the West, it’s important to give the historical context. There’s still so much we don’t know; the family destroyed many letters when Shostakovich died. The State would probably have requisitioned them anyway.’
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.