Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Opus 65


BORN: September 25, 1906. Saint Petersburg, Russia

DIED: August 9, 1975. Moscow, U.S.S.R. (Russia)

COMPOSED: Radio Moscow announced the completion of the Eighth Symphony on September 20, 1943, and soon after the composer gave a piano reading of it in Moscow for an invited audience of composers and conductors

WORLD PREMIERE: November 4, 1943. Yevgeny Mravinsky, to whom the score is dedicated, conducted the State Symphony Orchestra

US PREMIERE:  April 2, 1944. Artur Rodzinski with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1994. Herbert Blomstedt led. MOST RECENT—April 2010. Vasily Petrenko conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and 2 piccolos, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets with E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 3 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, and strings

DURATION: About 62 mins

THE BACKSTORY For American music-lovers during World War II, Shostakovich was the most famous living composer. Certainly, no single composition in the twentieth century had received as much public attention here as his Leningrad Symphony of 1941. Its success, in the United States and in the Soviet Union, was as immense as it was short-lived. Its reputation fell completely off the bottom of the scale as the composer’s reputation went into general decline, in part due to Cold War politics. His death set off a process of reconsideration, and to such an extent that Shostakovich’s standing has never been higher than it is today. Even Leningrad stock has recovered, at least to the point where that first adored, then despised symphony is now evaluated as a serious composition rather than a shabby piece of wartime claptrap.

After the gigantic effort of the Leningrad, Shostakovich, awarded the title of Honored Art Worker and granted a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory in addition to the one he already held in Leningrad, composed a number of songs on texts from Pushkin to “Comin’ thro’ the Rye,” a piano sonata, and what turned out to be an unfinished opera on Gogol’s The Gamblers. Then, in the summer of 1943, he settled at the “Creative Home” that the Union of Soviet Composers maintained near Ivanovo, about one hundred and fifty miles northeast of Moscow, and began work on his Eighth Symphony. It was quickly performed, by the conductor of Shostakovich’s choice, and upon an important occasion. Within a year it was heard in the United States and England. It was not badly received—the chronicler of the People’s heroism at the siege of Leningrad had too much credit for that just then—but commentary was respectful, reserved, puzzled. In spite of the sponsorship of Rodzinski in New York and of Koussevitzky in Boston, the work was not taken up here.

It was quickly lost from view in the Soviet Union as well. The composer suggested that it was the second part of a symphonic war trilogy, but for reasons no doubt both musical and ideological, he found himself unable to proceed with the plan for a heroic Ninth Symphony victory celebration, producing instead a scherzando “little symphony.” When the Eighth was remembered again it was in an unhappy context. In January 1948, when Andrei Zhdanov of the Central Committee of the Communist Party was promulgating resolutions on the proper conduct of music and musicians, that work was singled out for special attack.

Zhdanov was a master at playing on composers’ mutual antagonisms and jealousies, and the sharpest attack on the Eighth Symphony was delivered by Vladimir Zakharov, a writer of light music who was soon to become a Secretary in the “new order” presidium of the Composers’ Union. Zakharov began by declaring that “our symphonists have put up an iron curtain [!] . . . between the People and themselves. . . . These composers are alien and completely incomprehensible to our Soviet People. . . . There are still discussions around the question whether the Eighth is good or bad. Such a discussion is nonsense. From the point of view of the People, the Eighth is not a musical work at all; it is a ‘composition’ which has nothing whatever to do with art.”

Critics who had praised the Eighth, such as Shostakovich’s biographer Ivan Martynov, were called to account for their opinions and to revise them. In 1956, however, Shostakovich dared lament publicly “that the Eighth Symphony has remained unperformed for many years. In this work there was an attempt to express the emotional experiences of the People, to reflect the terrible tragedy of war. Composed in the summer of 1943, the Eighth Symphony is an echo of that difficult time, and in my opinion quite in the order of things.” On May 28, 1958, the Central Committee adopted a resolution in which it was noted that “comrades Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Popov, Miaskovsky, and others, whose works at times revealed the wrong tendencies, [had been] indiscriminately denounced as the representatives of a formalist anti-People trend.” With that, the Eighth Symphony returned to the repertory.

Perhaps if Shostakovich had given the Eighth the sort of slam-bang ending he had found for his first seven symphonies, most of this discussion, questioning, and acrimony would never have come up. But then nothing in this symphony is conventional, unless perhaps the opening, where Shostakovich returns to the striking formula of the Fifth Symphony of 1937: declamatory dialogue of low and high strings in sharply etched rhythms, subsiding into a lyric melody for violins. How unexpected, though, is the shape of the work as a whole. The first Adagio (which, however, traverses a range of tempi up to an extremely energetic allegro) is by itself a little under half the entire symphony. Then comes a sequence of what the critic Daniel Zhitomirsky called three marches—a heroic march, a scherzo-march, and a funeral march. Then the finale, reserved and brief. Shostakovich articulates all this in a special way by making his last break after the “heroic march,” the final three movements then being played without pause.

A design like this puzzles us less than it would have seventy years ago. The reason is that we know our Mahler better now. Shostakovich knew him all along. Oskar Fried and Fritz Stiedry held permanent conducting posts in the Soviet Union, and Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Hermann Scherchen, Jascha Horenstein, and William Steinberg visited there—and they were all Mahlerians long before Mahler was trendy. Mahler’s symphonies are one adventure after another in rethinking symphonic design, with only the First (in its revised version) and the Sixth built according to familiar four-movement schemes. Such Mahlerian ideas as a first movement hugely larger than the others (Symphony No. 3), linked pairs or groups of movements (No. 5), a series of character pieces in the middle of a symphony (Nos. 2 and 7), a finale surprisingly gentle and modest after what has gone before (No. 4)—all these have left their mark on the Shostakovich Eighth.

Something all Shostakovich’s own—and the beginnings of it are already there in the Symphony No. 1, which he wrote at nineteen—is the sound. Here in the Eighth Symphony he uses a normal large orchestra and writes for it with a knack of making it sound much larger than it is. He scores by dividing his ensemble into clearly defined blocks, and any one sonority, whether a tutti of a particular coloration, an accompanied solo, or one of his eccentric combinations (there is much play with these in the second movement with its shrilling piccolos and E-flat clarinet) is apt to dominate for a long time. It is also a sound that is hard-edged and lean rather than lush, tending more toward high treble and low bass than into the middle. Much of this, too, is learned from Mahler, but the result is quite individual.

THE MUSIC For Koussevitzky, the opening Adagio was a movement “which, by the power of its human emotion, surpasses everything else created in our time.” It is a masterfully controlled flow of sound, and rich in event—the beautiful, stretched, pianissimo melody with which the first violins enter (and how skillfully Shostakovich uses flute and trumpets briefly to support the melody and its accompaniment at the climax); the second, even more expansive violin, espressivo now, and in an enigmatic 5/4 meter over quietly pulsing chords; the first intervention of military music; after the first climax, over bounding strings, the scream of oboes and clarinets; the wonderful English-horn recitative, turning gradually into arioso (the greatest opportunity since the New World Symphony for a real artist on that hauntingly plangent instrument); and in the coda, the subtly new combinations of ideas from earlier until the last four quiet notes on the trumpet place the music with gentle firmness into its C major haven.

About Zhitomirsky’s characterization of the three marches there could be argument. I hear the second movement as grotesque, as parody, and not as genuinely heroic. Nor am I convinced by the third movement as scherzo. I hear, rather, a savage, relentless machine; it is also characteristic of Shostakovich to persist with such a brutal ostinato longer than anyone else would dare. Its most insistent feature, other than the persistent pounding notes, is again a scream.

Two great cries pierce the nightmare and open the way to the next slow movement. This is a solemn march indeed, written as a passacaglia, variations over a repeated bass. Shostakovich was to use this form with great power in a number of other situations, including the Trio No. 2, the Second, Third, Sixth, and Tenth string quartets, the Violin Concerto No. 1, and the Symphony No. 15. Here, the ten-measure bass, which begins with energy and concludes with a broadly composed-in ritard, is first played by itself in a marvelously scored decrescendo, and then repeated eleven times. What Shostakovich achieves in the seventh and last variations with his combination of flutter-tongued flutes and muted, plucked strings is one of the most eerie moments in all orchestral music.

Then, quietly, as though it were no feat at all, the clarinets lift the music from G-sharp minor into C major. The finale has begun. To know only the Shostakovich of the most famous symphonies and concertos is to know him very incompletely. The private Shostakovich of the chamber music, particularly the fifteen string quartets, travels in worlds of which the big orchestral works scarcely dream. This finale gives some hint of what that world is like. The war music and the scream intervene once more. But before and after, this is music of timidly awakening life. Shostakovich offered to put it into words: “Life is beautiful. All that is dark and ignominious will disappear. All that is beautiful will triumph.”

That is a hope to be at best timorously entertained, as he knew better than most. He was charged with having written, in the Eighth, a gloomy symphony. But in those last pages, so spacious in the way they draw breath, so lovely in sound, with the memory of tragedy still present in the hushed dissonances, there is firmness, acceptance, serenity. Perhaps even something of hope.—Michael Steinberg

This note first appeared in different form in the program book of the Boston Symphony Orchestra ©1977 and is used by permission.

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(May 2019)