The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Richard Freed

Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, composed in 1943, was first performed on November 4 of that year in Moscow, under the direction of Evgeny Mravinsky. Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son, conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, on January 19 and 20, 1971; the most recent ones were conducted by Mark Wigglesworth on January 17, 18 and 19, 2002. Mstislav Rostropovich performed this work frequently with the NSO, both at home and on tour, and recorded it with the orchestra for Teldec.

The score, dedicated to Evgeny Mravinsky, calls for 4 flutes and 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, xylophone, side drum, bass drum, and strings. Duration, 63 minutes.

The Eighth Symphony, which stands at the midpoint of Shostakovich's symphonic cycle, represents the midpoint, too, of his wartime trilogy of symphonies, and as such can hardly be approached without acknowledgement of the circumstances that brought it into being. Boris Schwarz, who was our pre-eminent authority on Russian music of the Soviet era, provided this general background:

The war period can be divided into two phases: the first, from 1941 to 1943, comprises the initial shock, the disastrous reverses on the battlefields; the second, from 1943 to 1945, covers the halt of the enemy, the counter-attack, and the ultimate victory. The initial mood of grief and anger turned gradually to determination and a will to win. All of this is reflected in the music of the time. . . . To encompass the magnitude of the events, one needs a certain distance--and the greater the event, the more time is needed to absorb all its significance. Whether the ultimate evaluation of Soviet music of the war years will be, one fact is clear: it cannot be judged in a detached, "objective" manner. To do that is to misinterpret its function, and its motivation.
The music of those days was meant to console and uplift, to encourage and exhort; nothing else mattered. Composers did not think of eternal values, not even of tomorrow--only of today, of the moment, of the immediate impact on the listener. Gone were all controversies, all the quarrels about epigonism and realism and formalism; forgotten was all aestheticizing. Only the survival of body and soul mattered, and the essential element of music was its morale-building force. In detached retrospect one finds occasional shallowness, posturing, hollow heroics; but under fire it all seemed real and very vital.
Citing the book Symphonies of War and Peace (Moscow, 1966), in which Boris Yarustovsky examined various works of American, British and Western European composers, as well as those of his compatriots, Schwarz continued:

The essential difference between East and West--;in the opinion of Yarustovsky--is the fact that the "Western" war symphonies were composed at a safe distance from the battlefield, while the Soviet composer--though not precisely "in battle"--was engulfed by the war, surrounded by it on all sides, physically and psychologically. Thus the war experience of the Western composer was one of intellectual absorption rather than physical exposure, while the Soviet composer was in daily contact with soldiers and survivors, with the horror and despair. The Soviet composer shared the agony of his people as well as the supreme joy of victory. There is perhaps less polished perfection in the scores of the Russians, but far more immediacy of personal involvement which--so Yarustovsky believes--transmits itself more forcefully to the listener. This, of course, is a rather personal reaction by a Soviet citizen whose own emotional response colors his objectivity and scholarship. But it is safe to assume that his view is shared by virtually every musician and music-lover in the Soviet Union. Disagree as one may, one must accept it as a fact: the Russians are fiercely proud of their music and very sensitive about any--even the slightest--foreign criticism
While we may be prepared to make allowances for the bulk of the music composed under such circumstances, we can acknowledge that some genuine masterpieces emerged, the most prominent and generally well received being the Fifth Symphony of Prokofiev, which was composed later than the Seventh and Eighth of Shostakovich, after the war had taken its decisive turn. Mention might also be made of Prokofiev's Sixth, which came after the war had actually ended but was a direct and profoundly felt consequence of it. (Boris Schwarz could observe reasonably enough that "For Shostakovich the symphonic idiom was a natural means of expression, while other composers struggled to translate their patriotic feelings into the formal terms of the symphony"; but none of the three constituent symphonies of Shostakovich's wartime trilogy has enjoyed anything like the sustained popular success of the Prokofiev Fifth.)

The dramatic background of the Seventh Symphony, composed while Shostakovich was serving as a volunteer firefighter in besieged Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was was known in the Soviet era), is well known and frequently cited, as is the story of that work's triumphant arrival in America. A microfilm copy of the score was brought via the most circuitous route to New York, where Arturo Toscanini conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the American premiere in July 1942, and in the following season the Seventh had nearly a hundred performances in our country alone. It had few since then, until some 40 years later, when it suddenly began turning up with some frequency on concert programs and in recordings. What had been perceived as topical patriotism when the Seventh was new did not seem to sustain its extended dimensions, and its most prominent theme was cited as the subject of a burlesque in Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra--another wartime work, by a displaced Hungarian patriot, that was to become as popular and indeed beloved as the Prokofiev Fifth.

Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony, written at the war's end, is neither the solemn paean to victory Stalin had wanted nor in any sense the monumental opus the rest of us have come to expect of a symphony bearing that hallowed number. It is one of Shostakovich's shorter symphonies, and apparently a light-hearted romp in the spirit of Haydn and Rossini, a release of tension in terms of sheer, unceremonious joy, with darker elements concealed well below the surface (though some latter-day commentators have read something a great deal more grim into it).
The Eighth, in one sense the most graphically descriptive of Shostakovich's wartime symphonies, is in every sense the most profound and the most personal. It was given some attention in the United States and England when it was new, but then more or less disappeared from the repertory, both at home and abroad. Shostakovich was moved to remark in 1956, 13 years after the premiere, "I regret very much that the Eighth Symphony has remained unperformed for many years. In this work there was an attempt to express the terrible tragedy of the war. . . . it is an echo of that difficult time, and quite in the order of things, in my opinion . . . "

Ilya Ehrenburg, the author and journalist, attended the premiere and reported, "I came home from the performance astounded: I had heard the voice of an ancient chorus from Greek tragedy. Music has a great advantage: without mentioning anything, it can say everything." But Ehrenburg's enthusiasm placed him in the minority, and there were factors operating in the immediate postwar years that kept the work out of both Russian and American concert halls. In our country it was the tension of the cold war atmosphere, building up to the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era, that intimidated some musicians who might otherwise have programmed new Soviet works. In the U.S.S.R. it was the notorious blast against the practitioners of "formalism" delivered by Stalin's spokesman Andrei Zhdanov, who in February 1948 placed Shostakovich and Prokofiev at the head of his list of prime offenders in the realm of music. Zhdanov's initials speech and its various follow-ups had a paralyzing effect on Soviet creativity generally. (Ehrenburg was a victim of one of Zhdanov's tirades as early as 1945, and, like Shostakovich, found himself in-and-out of official favor with some frequency.) "For a time," Boris Schwarz noted,
The Eighth was condemned as a depressive, self-pitying confession of subjective emotion, of tortured expressionism; now one has recognized its validity as a document of deeply felt humanism. A British critic, Andrew Porter, has expressed it perceptively: "[The work] must be set beside Goya and Guernica . . . a shattering experience . . . The Seventh Symphony was heroic. The Eighth is not heroic, but rather a direct and dreadful presentation of what all good men must hate."
The Seventh, in other words, had been a timely shot in the arm, a morale-booster, and the Eighth came as a lament. Even in the first movement of the Seventh the nervous rhythms stir the blood, producing a rallying cry, and the work concludes with a more or less conventional but very effective "apotheosis," ringing with affirmation--an assertion of steadfast determination, a proclamation of the inevitable triumph. The Eighth is a deeper and more personal observation on the human consequences of war, tragic in every sense; it represents, as Boris Schwarz wrote, "the mature thoughts, more bitter, more resigned, and more strongly yearning for peace . . . for true peace, not a noisy victory celebration." He continued:
The lack of "apotheosis" in the Eighth, the alternation of savagery and contemplation, the quiet, inconclusive ending seem to be the reflection of utmost strain on the sensitive psyche of Shostakovich. The war was in its third year, the cruelties multiplied each day, and no end to the bloodshed was in sight. There can be no doubt that the composer was deeply affected; the spirited mood of the Seventh became dispirited, punctuated by anger in the Eighth. The Seventh was provided by the composer with copious commentary; about the Eighth he remained laconically silent. He wanted to paint horror as well as hope; omitted from the range of his images was triumph. It was a lack sadly noted by critics and public.
It is pertinent to cite so many references comparing these two symphonies, because Shostakovich himself regarded them as so closely related that he declared (according to Solomon Volkov in Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich) that "the Seventh and Eighth symphonies are my requiem." Structurally, the Seventh, despite its extended length, follows the conventional four-movement format. The Eighth follows a pattern more or less corresponding to that of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (significantly, in this context, a declaredly "programmatic" work): five movements, two of which stand separately in the first half, with the remaining three interconnected to form the second half. Shostakovich would follow this pattern again in writing his Ninth, but the differences between that work and the Eighth are far greater than those between the Seventh and Eighth in terms of content and proportions. There is no attempt at symmetry in the Eighth, whose opening movement, nearly as long as the Ninth in its entirety, is followed by two scherzos and then by a slow movement and a moderate, restrained finale. Boris Schwarz remarked on this "curious, somewhat lopsided form" in offering this analysis:
The first movement is an immense, tripartite structure (Adagio--Allegro--Adagio), the slow sections suggesting a bitter contemplation, the fast part a battle or invasion. There follow two scherzo-like movements, though drained of any "jest"; both--according to Soviet interpretations--are distorted pictures of the "enemy," aggressive, savage. Particularly the second scherzo is a motoric movement, driving forward relentlessly in a toccata-like fashion and topped by screams of despair. This leads without break into a sombre Largo--a set of variations on a theme in the bass, that is, a passacaglia. (Shostakovich was fond of this Baroque technique; it reappears in several of his compositions of the 1950s, notably the First Violin Cocnerto.) After the pitiless frenzy of the preceding movement, the passacaglia appears deliberately static, almost frozen in time and space. "It is as if the music wished to say, 'Here, there was life,'" according to one Soviet commentator. The grave passacaglia theme is repeated 12 times in the bass instruments; the variations built above it feature the strings, the clarinets, a haunting solo horn, the flutes . . . all clad in a mood of desolation and loneliness. Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, the music modulates into a more cheerful key--C major--and the final movement begins. There is a pastoral mood about this finale, although the center section builds into a rather incongreuous climax, with a mighty theme played against snarling drums. But the excitement subsides, and the movement trails off in a coda of peaceful dreams . . . coming as it does at the end of four tension-filled movements, it disperses the tension rather than resolves it . . .
(Quoted material from Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1980, by Boris Schwarz, published by Indiana University Press. Copyright © 1972 and © 1983 by Boris Schwarz. Reprinted by permission.)