“Once in a lifetime one must have been a Marxist”, we used to joke at my former workplace, the newsroom of a liberal German newspaper, and there is some truth in that joke. One has to believe first in Marxism in order to reject it later. At high school I had to come to grips with concepts like the historical and dialectical materialism, and later, while studying political sciences, I felt for a short moment the fever of revolution when it came to demonstrating against the World Economic Forum in Munich. But by then I had already studied enough of Karl Marx’s works (and Lenin’s for that matter), to conclude that although Marx correctly diagnosed the problems of capitalism, he got it all wrong when it comes to the remedies. And he had greatly underestimated the inventiveness and flexibility of capitalism.
In five days, Marx would have celebrated his 200th anniversary, and since it is the 1st of May today, what could be more appropriate as a musical stimulus than Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major (Op. 20) “First of May”? As you may remember from earlier posts, Shostakovich believed into the Soviet version of socialism – Stalin’s incoherent, autocratic state-building theory – and heralded the working-class of the Soviet Union for the many sacrifices it made to build a better world, if not on a global scale, at least on the territory of the USSR.
Brass instruments and chorales
Shostakovich wrote this symphony in 1929 during a six-week holiday at the Black Sea coast. Initially he had conceived it as a part of a series of symphonic poems, dedicated to the revolutionary calendar. His second symphony has the name “Dedication to October”, and the third is to be seen as a logical continuation.They differ however in style from Symphony No. 2. The work was part of his graduate student requirements and Shostakovich explained: “Whereas in ‘Dedication’ the main content is struggle, The ‘May First Symphony’ expresses the festive spirit of peaceful construction…”
The biographer Laurel E. Fay writes that Soviet listeners would have immediately found Shostakovich’s musical language accessible as the symphony reflects on the “musical soundscape” of the time with “mass and workers’ and pioneer marches”. The piece relies heavily on brass instruments and, in the last movement, on chorales inspired by the finale of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
The symphony “First of May” is a beautifully heroic piece of music and though I have long given up on the idea that socialism in its contemporary form may bring forward any creative or pioneering idea on how to make a world dominated by globalized production means a little more humane, I enjoy its optimistic spirit and I share Shostakovich’s belief that it is worth thriving for a better world. Every single day.
© Charles Thibo