SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 8 in C minor, op. 65

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975): Symphony No. 8 in C minor, op. 65

  • I. Adagio
  • II. Allegretto
  • III. Allegro non troppo
  • IV. Largo
  • V. Allegretto

Unlike many of his compatriots in the arts, Dmitri Shostakovich did not emigrate from the Soviet Union, but chose to remain there his entire life. Recognized as the leading Soviet composer, as well as one of the twentieth century’s most important musical creators, he left a body of work that demonstrates the continuing viability of such traditional musical genres as the symphony, the string quartet, and the concerto.

But against the backdrop of his great international reputation, his own life represented a profound compromise — musically as well as morally. For in order to protect himself and his family in a society in which his own eminence made him especially vulnerable to attack, he was forced to yield to continual pressure to adopt artistic principles rooted in political objectives and to suppress any personal artistic impulses that deviated from these principles. Thus accepting the role of Soviet artist, he numbly mouthed platitudes he did not believe and resignedly composed much empty patriotic music that he loathed.

At the same time, Shostakovich developed a personal code language that enabled him to express himself more fully, albeit cryptically. For this, the art of music was ideal. “Without mentioning anything, it can say everything,” wrote his friend Ilya Ehrenburg. And so, for Shostakovich music became a vehicle through which he could bear witness to events and feelings that might otherwise have gone undocumented. For this reason his music has a more descriptive quality than that of many other composers. This is not to suggest that it is a limited language, but rather, that he used the panorama of his own time and place as a catalyst for generating a broader metaphysical vision as many other composers have used their own personal psyches as symbolic microcosms of humanity. This is is especially true of the Symphony No. 8, one of the two large symphonies Shostakovich composed during World War II.

The year 1943 was a time of relative creative freedom for Shostakovich. He felt permitted to explore emotions of despair and anguish in his music, for such negative feelings, presumably engendered by forces outside the Soviet Union, were permitted expression. He was also it the height of his international popularity now. His previous symphony, subtitled Leningrad, had been highly publicized, with major conductors vying for the opportunity to lead the premiere. The work had made him an international celebrity–a symbol of the Soviet people’s resistance against fascism during the brief period when the West looked sympathetically upon the Soviet Union. In fact, when the Symphony No. 8 was finished, CBS paid the Soviet government $10,000 for rights to the first broadcast. But after the war, internal Soviet politics turned against Shostakovich, who was denounced viciously at a notorious party congress. The overall pessimism of the Symphony No. 8 was now cited as “unpatriotic,” in view of the victory of the Allied forces.

From today’s perspective, the work seems clearly to be a generic requiem for the victims of the form of organized destruction known as war. ‘The symphony begins with a long, somber Adagio (as do several Shostakovich symphonies), a vast plain of sober reflection. The eminent conductor Serge Koussevitsky cited this movement as one “which by the power of its human emotion surpasses everything else created in our time.” It is also perhaps fair to say that no composer has ever portrayed the quality of human brutality as vividly as did Shostakovich, an assertion that is supported by the climax of this movement, with its almost unbearable intensity, before a beautifully eloquent solo by the English horn brings it to a state of repose. The mammoth first movement is followed by a brief Allegretto that serves as scherzo— a rather subdued yet ironically tinged military march.

The third, fourth, and fifth movements follow one another without pause. The third, Allegro non troppo, has been called a “Toccata of Death.” It is built around an insistent ostinato rhythmic pattern over which are heard sounds that many have found to be literally suggestive of battle-sounds. This leads directly to the Largo, a passacaglia. Unlike most passacaglias, which slowly accumulate energy and force, this one remains quiet and contemplative, serving as a relief from the previous movements and as a transition into the finale. The concluding Allegretto contains a measure of hope–perhaps a sense of rebirth–though not without reminders of the horrors that preceded. As the work comes to an end quietly, one is left with a sense of tempered optimism rather than triumph.