Symphonies and Social Movements

Symphonies and Social Movements

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Even when artists write manifestos, they are (hopefully) aware that their exigent tone is borrowed, only echoing and mimicking the urgency of the activist’s protests. . . . The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.       —Zadie Smith, Intimations (2020)

That’s from an essay, “Something to Do,” that Smith wrote apropos of the frustration that urban creative types experienced during the lockdown. What do you do with all that time? Bake bread? Write a novel? Both need to be shared. Although it wasn’t her intent, she reminded us that most art is ultimately public, meant to be enjoyed (or at least tolerated) by the whole community – everyone who walks by “The Picasso” inside Chicago’s Loop, or through-and-under the “Bean,” Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Millennium Park.

The same holds true for symphonies! Around the middle of the 18th century, they gradually became the most public of genres, and as such they began to speak not only to but also for their audiences. Slowly, in Paris, London, Mannheim, and elsewhere, the symphony grew up. Consider how one musician active in the 1770s, Johann Abraham Peter Schulz, described an ideal first movement for such a work:

[It should] contain grand and bold ideas, free handling of compositional techniques, apparent irregularity in the melody and harmony, strongly-marked rhythms, powerful bass melodies and unisons, sudden transitions and shifts from one key to another, bold shadings of forte and piano, and particularly the crescendo.

Symphonies, Schulz wrote, “are especially suited to the expression of the grand, the solemn, and the sublime.” He didn’t live long enough to hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” but he might well have been describing it. Beethoven made sure to give audiences what they expected: “grand and bold ideas,” “free handling,” “strongly-marked rhythms,” and more.

With No. 3, Beethoven also attempted to offer his era a politically conscious symphony; that caused him a bit more trouble. He had begun with the intention of dedicating his new work to Napoleon, Liberator of Europe. But before he could even finish it, his hero had crowned himself Emperor, signaling to the composer (and not only the composer) that Bonaparte was just another tyrant. Beethoven scratched out his dedication so forcefully on the score that he tore right through the paper.

My favorite “Eroica” movement is the second, a funeral march in which Beethoven invites us to imagine a memorial oration, tracing a hero’s struggles and ultimate legacy. As the music progresses, venturing far from its initial minor-key tonality, it attains real nobility and depth of feeling, no longer merely echoing or mimicking.


To find another Beethoven symphony with a similarly pointed message, we are forced to head toward the other end of Beethoven’s life – from the “Eroica” of 1804 to the Ninth of 1824. Its last movement is a grand setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, a song in praise of love and friendship, of all that unites us as humans. Critics have pointed out that Beethoven’s musical frame is better than the poem itself. Fair enough, but the real point of the Ninth may be that you first endure three long movements of Life Itself, a stretch of often dissonant, disordered instrumental music, before you get to the good stuff. And then the bass soloist just gets up and says, “Oh Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” (Oh friends, not these sounds!) Kind of a Zen moment.

[Scherzo at 19:52; Adagio at 35:50; Finale at 52:14]


And this is where we leap ahead, hoping to encounter new, improved musical manifestos.

Consider Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975). Exactly none of his fifteen symphonies comes to us without an intended (or inferred, or imputed) political message. Although he didn’t actually join the Party until quite late in life, he became an artistic vassal of the Soviet system the instant he drew creative breath. How did he manage to survive the Stalin era while writing music that fulfilled his masters’ dictates (sort of) and yet revealed his own joys and sorrows (after a fashion)? My writing-hero Michael Steinberg nailed it when he called Shostakovich “a man who could [neither] commit himself to heroism or to moral and intellectual slavery.” Every time we dip into his music, we are confronted by the enigma of someone who created much and outlasted everything, but at enormous personal cost. Did he serve his audience – his community – well?

He may have served them best when he was most true to himself: for example, his Ninth Symphony aggressively poked holes – with a smile – in audience expectations. After Beethoven, fans assumed every Ninth to come would be a major milestone, filled with Deep Thoughts and Valedictory Remarks. Shostakovich would have none of that. (Oh friends . . .) Instead he came up with something short and frisky. “Musicians will love to play it,” he said, “and critics will delight in attacking it.” He was right on both counts. Soon after the work’s 1945 premiere, Soviet critics found fault with its “ideological weaknesses.” It had utterly failed “to reflect the true spirit of the Soviet people.”

You can almost hear Shostakovich anticipating those critics in the first movement, its merry progress punctuated from time to time by gassy blasts from a trombone (presumably a jackbooted Trombone of the Soviet People):

That was from Petrenko’s complete Shostakovich cycle for Naxos. Shostakovich’s symphonic output was wildly uneven, but it can be divided into ostensibly personal (= wayward, “bourgeois”) and public (= sends a social message) works. Of the latter, surely the best-known is No. 5, which, like Beethoven’s Fifth, utilizes a (now familiar) struggle-ending-in-triumph narrative. And what, you ask, is “social” about that? Coming soon after he had been scolded by Stalin and his minions for writing bourgeois, “formalist” music, Shostakovich allowed the Fifth to stand as an apology, “a Soviet artist’s response to justified criticism.” (See intended, inferred, imputed, above.)  If you’ve never heard the Shostakovich Fifth or listened to it lately, here’s a most excellent taste:


The finest of Shostakovich’s public symphonies are not those that mimic the outward structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, like Nos. 2 (“To October”) or 3 (“The First of May”). Those are simple-minded, and their poetry is even worse than Schiller’s. A more perfect union of music and moral/cultural suasion (let’s not call it propaganda!) came with No. 7 (“Leningrad”) and – especially – No. 11 (“The Year 1905”), both of which took a transformative community experience and electrified it with orchestral narrative, creating story-soundtracks that united the audience in visceral understanding.

By the time he composed No. 11 in 1956–57, Shostakovich was an old hand at film scoring. Now he used his sure sense of cinematic technique to mount a widescreen portrayal of the infamous “Bloody Sunday” massacre, in which the Tsar’s troops killed hundreds of peacefully protesting workers gathered at the gates of the Winter Palace. The composer wove nine familiar revolutionary songs into the symphony’s thematic material, which meant that its melodic content – and the words of the songs – would be instantly recognizable to most Russians. (They might still have quarreled over what the symphony was actually “about.” Was it a straightforward commemoration of an important pre-revolutionary event? An allusion to the recently suppressed Hungarian Revolution? Or a response to Khrushchev’s February 1956 “secret speech” to Party officials, denouncing the Stalin era’s terrorism? Why not all three? These were political concerns, not artistic ones. Intended, inferred, imputed.)

Symphony No. 11 was acclaimed by audiences and Soviet officials alike. It’s also been well served on recordings, not least because it explodes with orchestral power and color in all the right places. I recommend an attractive new release from Chandos (CHSA 5278; booklet here) featuring John Storgårds leading the BBC Philharmonic; it’s spacious, detailed, and impactful. Since YouTube doesn’t offer Storgårds’ performance, you’ll find a link to Andris Nelsons’ recent Boston Symphony Orchestra recording below. The last two movements, a funeral oration (at 36:01) followed by a noisy call to arms (at 48:29), are particularly engaging. (And if you’d like a bit more background, here’s a link to a BBC Proms performance that begins with additional history.)


The remarkable survival and recycling of these “message” symphonies suggests that, as they say, history may not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes. One hopes the future will bring forth more odes to joy than calls to arms.

I am indebted to Mark Evan Bonds’s  History of Music in Western Culture (Pearson, 2013) for the discussion of J. A. P. Schulz.

Header image: V. E. Makovsky, Study for “January 9, 1905”

Back to Copper home page