In light of recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, continuing events in Bahrain, and upcoming events likely to take place in the Middle East and North Africa, I submit that revolution is in the air. With apologies to the 18th century revolutions in France and America, the Abbasids, Haiti, the Boxer Rebellion, and Pancho Villa, no one does revolution quite like the Russians. The trail from the Decembrists to the massacre of 1905 to the Bolsheviks and the birth of the Soviet Union is an amazing story. The fact that it all peaked with a paranoid psychopath at the top of the pyramid purging 30 million of his own people shouldn’t mask the joy of 1917. BTW, if you ever need context for just how bad a guy Hitler was, always remember that the paranoid psychopath who purged 30 million of his own people was our ally in WWII. THANKS FOR THE LAUGH WHILE SHAKING MY HEAD SLOWLY, COMPLETELY TRUE STATEMENT!
Seriously, though, 1917 was awesome if you had grown tired of Tsarism (judging by the fact that Tsar Nicholas’ entire family was murdered in a basement while they thought they were getting a portrait taken, I would say some people were tired of Tsarism). I imagine it’s what the good people of Egypt are feeling right now: an unbridled optimism in their future, destiny in their own hands! How can this not end well?! The subject of the October Revolution occupied a giant space in Soviet art, literature, and music. No one filled that giant space more than Dmitri Shostakovich.
Shostakovich tackled the subject of revolution constantly in his music, whether in the 2nd and 12th symphonies, the cantata The Execution of Stepan Razin, or any number of film scores, including some for schlocky Communist regime propaganda. Of course, living in a terrifying police state where artists were censored, abducted, and murdered, Shostakovich had to become pretty good at hiding what it was he was really trying to say; most everyone knows all about Shostakovich’s hidden musical meanings, Testimony, and his relationship to Soviet Russia. What a thrill it may have been, then, when Shostakovich composed a symphonic poem in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. Khruschev had already tried to “de-Stalinize” the country, and Brezhnev was still years away from destroying the Soviet economy.
October is a concise 13-minute work that does a remarkable job of seeming celebratory. Of course, being Shostakovich, it also has a subtext, and that subtext is best seen in the musical quotations Shostakovich uses: music from the Tenth Symphony, allusions to the Fifth and Seventh symphonies, and the song “To the Partisan” from the movie “Volochayevka Days.” Nothing says “Yay for the revolution” quite like references to a couple pieces written during the worst part of Shostakovich’s relationship with Stalin, the symphony celebrating Stalin’s death, and a song about people opposing repression. That would be like asking Sean Hannity to write a biography of Barack Obama, or asking me to say something…anything…nice about the Dodgers or Lakers.
This is the kind of music that purists will tell you belongs with things like the 11th and 12th symphonies somewhere closer to the scrap heap than Shostakovich’s apex. Whatever. It’s evocative as hell, it shows a composer completely in control of his sound world, and it’s bloody exciting. Listen especially for the transition from 2 to 3 at the end…it’s one of my favorites. Honestly, if you don’t have a good time listening to this piece, there’s something wrong with you. You clearly don’t wish to celebrate Bolshevism, Stalinism, the nuclear arms race, the Iron Curtain, terrorism, and the war in Afghanistan. Shame on you.
This recording features the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Viva subversion.