The Eighth Symphony is a dark, epic work standing at the very centre of Shostakovich’s output. Composed in a mere ten weeks between July and September 1943, it was first performed in Moscow on 4 November under Evgeny Mravinsky. Expectations were high, for Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, associated with the siege of Leningrad, had been adopted both in Russia and the West as a symbol of resistance to the Nazis. It was hoped that the Eighth would follow in its patriotic footsteps, but with the difference that the tide of war had now turned. Earlier that year the German Sixth army had been annihilated at Stalingrad, the siege of Leningrad had been lifted, and the Nazis were in retreat.
What should have been a symphony of heroism and victory turned out to be nothing of the sort. At a time when optimism and glorification of the Motherland under Stalin’s inspired leadership were the order of the day, anything more complex—let alone the questioning ambiguities of Shostakovich’s new symphony—was bound to be received with suspicion. One representative comment after the first performance was that, ‘it sees only the dark side of life. Its composer must be a poor-spirited sort not to share the joy of his people’. After the Leningrad premiere in 1944 the work virtually disappeared from the repertory, and at the notorious 1948 conference that condemned the finest composers in Russia it was singled out for its ‘unhealthy individualism’ and pessimism.
Shostakovich is reported as saying in 1942 that his Fifth and Seventh Symphonies were concerned ‘not only with Fascism, but also events in our country, as well as tyranny and totalitarianism in general’, and that ‘Fascism is not just National Socialism; this music is about terror, slavery, moral decay’. If this holds true for the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, it is even more relevant to the Eighth. At the same time, the fact that this is a war symphony cannot be minimised. After all, if even such anti-Bolshevik exiles as Rachmaninov and Stravinsky discovered (rather to their surprise) that they were Russians first and anti-Bolsheviks second, how can one doubt the visceral reactions of anyone who actually lived in Russia throughout a war that cost the Soviet Union something like 27 million dead, two thirds of them civilians?
The Eighth is a great tragic statement about suffering, but its validity need not rely on the specific circumstances of its composition. Written 75 years ago, it continues to ring out as the voice of an individual sensibility speaking for the millions whose lives have been shattered by totalitarianism, militarism and cruelty, whatever their sources. The theme is as topical today as it was in 1943.
The symphony’s opening—dotted-note gestures in the strings leading to a sparse, bleak theme in the violins—recalls that of the Fifth, and here too Shostakovich immediately creates a sense of vast musical space within which the tension gradually mounts, the tempo increases, the themes become brutalised and the music eventually erupts into the first of the symphony’s three great climaxes, drum roll crescendos punctuating massive cries from the full orchestra. The long cor anglais threnody that follows is characteristic of much of the symphony’s quiet music: a sense of numb shock after the experience of horror.
The two following movements, both short and fast, take up and intensify ideas from the first movement. The second, beginning as a grimly mechanised march, contains woodwind solos—notably for the scampering piccolo—in Shostakovich’s most sardonic vein. The third is a grim moto perpetuo interspersed with vivid shrieks and howls, and hurtles towards the second big climax. After this the symphony’s opening dotted rhythm is given out by brass and strings, then sinks into the bass, where it is repeated eleven times, underpinning the most introverted music in the symphony, quiet throughout, with a sense of repression, exhaustion, even suffocation. There is a vast sense of relief as the music at last slides into a warm C major and a solo bassoon begins the finale.
Shostakovich’s own public comments on his music were usually trite, if not downright misleading. Thus he explained: ‘This new work is an attempt to look into the future, towards the post-war age. The Eighth Symphony contains many inner conflicts of both a tragic and dramatic nature, but it is on the whole an optimistic, life-affirming work … the fifth movement contains bright, pastoral music with various kinds of dance elements interwoven with folk motifs.’
Even Shostakovich couldn’t bring himself to claim that this finale was triumphant or victorious. Many people in the USSR believed that the postwar period would lead to a new freedom for their country. Shostakovich was clearly not one of them; that much seems obvious from the placing of the third great climax, a virtual repeat of that in the first movement. In its wake a long solo for the bass clarinet with solo violin appears as a sort of halfway-stage between the first movement’s lamenting cor anglais solo and the sardonic clowning of the piccolo in the second movement. The symphony ends with a gradual quiet fade out, as though drained of energy or feeling.