Music that doesn't suck, No. 23: The Year 1917
Without question, my favorite symphonic composer of the 20th century was Dmitri Shostakovich. I won’t dive into his life story here, but you should totally Google it—he’s fascinating. If you know any one of his 15(!!!!) symphonies, it’s probably the Fifth. Like Beethoven before him, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is his most popular by a giant, gaping margin. It’s not unfounded popularity by any means; they both carry a tremendous amount of emotional baggage—and, in Shostakovich’s case, political baggage—in perfectly attractive, accessible forms. But, just because one symphony occupies nearly all the spotlight doesn’t necessarily mean the other 14 are any less good…which brings us to our topic this week: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12, subtitled “The Year 1917.”
When I was a doctoral student at Indiana University, one of my two primary teachers retired at the end of my second year, Maestro David Effron, who had been on the IU conducting faculty for nearly 20 years. The program for his final concert had just two pieces: Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi (my favorite Wagner overture) and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 12. Each of those pieces deals with the real-life toppling of an aristocratic government in favor of populism.
The Symphony is programmatic, meaning it intends to convey a specific narrative, event, or series of events through music. It is not simply music for music’s sake. Given its subtitle, “The Year 1917,” the Symphony No. 12 is meant to depict the Russian October Revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin. (This was also the topic of Shostakovich’s Second Symphony, subtitled, “To October.”) The Twelfth Symphony has four movements, but is played as one seamless whole, and each movement has its own subtitle:
1) Revolutionary Petrograd quotes a revolutionary song with the words "shame on you tyrants" and the Polish song “The Warsaw March,” both of which appear in the finale of his Symphony No. 11.
2) Razliv further quotes Symphony No. 11, as well as Shostakovich’s early Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution. It depicts Lenin's countryside headquarters at Razliv, outside Petrograd.
3) Aurora was the cruiser that fired at the Winter Palace and began the Russian Revolution. The percussion are used to particularly great effect in this scherzo-like movement.
4) The Dawn of Humanity represents Soviet life after the guidance of Lenin. The funeral march quotation is transformed into a jubilant theme, before a celebratory conclusion.
The performance is actually the premiere recording of the piece from October 1961, with the Leningrad Philharmonic being led by Shostakovich’s long-time friend and champion Evgeny Mravinsky: https://youtu.be/Q3ty-Y3E1FA
Do you have a favorite 20th-century symphony? Post it in the comments!