Witnessing the traumatic impact of Leningrad’s devastation at the hand of the Nazis in 1941 was a seminal and scarring experience for Shostakovich. Not only did it impact on the Seventh Symphony, composed during this period and designed to bolster the morale of the city’s starving inhabitants, but it also formed a significant part of the emotional background for the Eighth. Ironically the successful reception of the Seventh proved to be a double-edged sword for the composer. On the plus side it demonstrated the potential for symphonic music to be utilised as a potent weapon in the war effort, even encouraging one Soviet propagandist in 1942 to suggest ‘its significance extends beyond the bounds of merely a musical event’.
Whilst remarks of this nature certainly enhanced Shostakovich’s status as a war hero, the work’s popularity risked placing any subsequent symphony he was to write under much greater critical scrutiny. This was certainly the case with the Eighth. By the time he began work on the score in July 1943 a series of victories by the Red Army had turned the fortunes of the war much more in the favour of the Allies. So there was a weight of expectation that this new composition would reflect the renewed optimism that the conflict could soon be over, a feeling incidentally also matched in the United States where a bidding war between two rival radio stations resulted in CBS purchasing the broadcasting rights for the symphony’s American premiere for the enormous sum of $10,000.