Enough archive film exists of events in Russia in 1917 for their momentousness to be tangible a century later. They show the streets of St Petersburg filled with demonstrators, while men gather, armed with rifles and small artillery, outside the Smolny Institute. Later, in the days after the fighting, the camera pans along a procession of tens of thousands bearing the coffins of those who died. The October Revolution was history on an epic scale.
These are, inevitably, silent pieces of footage — but Russian composers left enough music to provide soundtracks for all the films that survive and more. Take Shostakovich’s Symphony No 12, subtitled “The Year 1917”. The music might almost be accompanying an unseen film, as it follows the story from the restless mood of “Revolutionary Petrograd” in the days before the uprising to the (possibly ironic) optimism of the finale, “The Dawn of Humanity”.
That is only one of an armful of such works, most by composers rarely heard in the west. Other revolutions also left a musical legacy — the spirit of the French Revolution can be traced through rousing marches, so-called “rescue” operas involving political prisoners, and even Beethoven’s symphonies — but no other is on the same scale. Why did the Russian Revolution have such a huge impact on music? And why did its influence over all the arts last so long?
In this centenary year music festivals the world over are exploring these questions in their programming. Few, though, are so well-placed to play it on a big scale as the annual BBC Proms. Russian composers did not write bashful little trifles about the revolution. These are brash, blazing, bombastic works — just right for the gladiatorial arena of the Royal Albert Hall.
We do not have to look far to see why most of these pieces are rarely performed. Neither Shostakovich’s Symphony No 12 nor his preceding Symphony No 11, entitled “The Year 1905” and depicting Russia’s earlier…