October features in a number of classical works, and not only in response to its seasonal characteristics. To take an example, it’s nearly a hundred years since that seismic event known as the Russian October Revolution took place, one which was to receive significant attention from the pen of Dimitry Shostakovich. But we’ll come to that later as we ping-pong this week between Russia and the US.
We start in America, 23 years after the Russian Revolution, yet still with a Soviet link. In 1940, a group called The Almanac Singers was established in New York. Among the founding members were musicians Pete Seeger (later of The Weavers) and Woody Guthrie, playwright Lee Hays and actor Millard Lampell. Their trademark, folk-music songs took moral messages, anti-Fascist sentiment and worker union material as their basis. Lampell wrote the lyrics for The Ballad of October 16 (8.120567) which extended their repertoire into the area of anti-war songs. October 16, 1940 was the day when FDR (President Franklin D Roosevelt) reinstated conscription, obliging young Americans to sign up for the draft and opening up a catwalk onto the theatre of the Second World War. Here are the first few verses, which clearly reflect how many Americans were sorely upset by the move.
It didn’t take long, however, for the tide to turn. The Ballad of October 16 was released in May, 1941. The following month, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, causing the momentum for American peace songs to quickly wither, while Shostakovich, unbeknown to the rest of the world, was hunkering down to begin work under siege on his Symphony No. 7, Leningrad.
With the attack on Pearl Harbour following shortly afterwards in December, Alan Hovhaness’ October Mountain (9.80937), written in the following year of 1942, must have come as a pleasantly marked contrast. This was the same year that Hovhaness attended the Tanglewood Music Festival, held in close proximity to the October Mountain State Forest. Its beautiful, haunting sounds stem from the choice of instrumentation and mode of construction that reflect eastern cultures; written for percussion sextet, it includes parts for marimbas, glockenspiel, timpani and tam-tam. Here’s the opening stretch, which clearly nods to the style of a gamelan ensemble, helping to confirm Hovhaness as one of America’s most idiosyncratic musical pioneers, who sought musical reconciliation between East and West, spiritual and mundane, long before it was fashionable to do so.
Back over to Russia now where, some 40 years before the 1917 October Revolution, Tchaikovsky had been commissioned by the editor of the periodical Nouvelliste to write an appropriate piano piece for each of its monthly editions between December 1875 and November 1876. Although a bit of a misnomer, these character pieces were subsequently grouped into the set now known as The Seasons (8.570787); they were intended to reflect the month of their publication and to be performed by amateur musicians. Some of them, however, must have tested the technical proficiency of the intended performers, but not so the charming movement October: Autumn Song, as can be heard here.
And so at last to Shostakovich who had the Russian Revolution, traditionally dated to October 25, 1917, threaded through his lifelong work. Uncertainty and repression from the Soviet authorities, plus the whimsical, dangerous lashes from Joseph Stalin at the top of the command chain, periodically dogged Shostakovich’s output. One can only guess the composer’s thoughts when he was penning October (8.557812) in 1967, in response to a commission to commemorate the Golden Anniversary of the events of 1917. Stalin had been dead for 14 years, ditto the requirement for ‘Soviet Realism’ in the arts, and this
Op. 131 work proved to be one of Shostakovich’s last. The work is cast mostly in the minor mode, with a lugubrious opening setting the scene. The more optimistic major mode barely has a minute to establish itself towards the end of the piece, which ends with its party-hat on and with typical Shostakovich panache.
Shostakovich’s Second Symphony, ‘To October’ (8.572708) came in response to a commission in 1927 by the Propaganda Division of the State Music Publishers’ Section. They wanted a symphonic work to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. His Twelfth Symphony (8.572658) dates from 1961. It’s subtitled The Year 1917 and is dedicated to the memory of Lenin, although it became less a celebration of Lenin’s legacy than a chronological depiction of events during the Bolshevik Revolution.
But let’s end on a more cheerful pitch, with a work by the contemporary American composer Eric Whitacre. His October (8.570946) for wind band returns to a seasonally-inspired sound world. Here’s what the composer has to say about the piece:
“October is my favourite month. Something about the crisp autumn air and the subtle change in light always makes me a little sentimental, and as I started to sketch I felt that same quiet beauty in the writing. The simple pastoral melodies are inspired by the great English Romantics (Vaughan Williams, Elgar) as I felt this style was also perfectly suited to capture the natural and pastoral soul of the season.”