Mark Wigglesworth

Shostakovich Symphony No.8

Mark’s notes on Shostakovich Symphony No. 8



Such was the popularity of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony that one American radio station offered the Soviet government $10,000 for the rights to the first broadcast of its successor. But the worldwide reaction to the Leningrad Symphony was a mixed blessing for the composer. On the one hand the resultant fame in the West provided a certain degree of protection against criticism at home, but on the other it gave his jealous and insecure colleagues an opportunity to promote the view that he had decadent and ‘anti-soviet’ tendencies. In any case, given that the Eighth was created at the turning point in the war, its expected optimism generated huge anticipation. 2nd February 1943 saw the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad. Despite the gigantic losses suffered by the Red Army during the battle, a sense of great achievement and pride spread across the Soviet Union – Stalin had defeated the Nazis. The trouble for Shostakovich was that this was not necessarily a reason to celebrate. He feared that the victory would actually only help Stalin, whose newly acquired prestige in the West would allow him to wield even more power than he already did.

The war years had in fact been years of relative freedom for Soviet creativity. It became acceptable to depict grief and destruction as the responsibility could be placed at the door of the Germans. In peacetime, unclouded optimism was required of artists and under those circumstances Shostakovich’s music was often subjected to intense criticism. In many ways, the war rescued the composer. In Testimony, his disputed but reliable memoirs, he wrote: ‘And then the war came and the sorrow became a common one. We could talk about it, we could cry openly, cry for our lost ones. People stopped fearing tears. Before the war there probably wasn’t a single family who hadn’t lost someone, a father, a brother, or if not a relative, then a close friend. Everyone had someone to cry over, but you had to cry silently, under the blanket, so no one would see. Everyone feared everyone else, and the sorrow oppressed and suffocated us. It suffocated me too. I had to write about it. I had to write a Requiem for all those who died, who had suffered. I had to describe the horrible extermination machine and express protest against it. The Seventh and Eighth Symphonies are my Requiems.
Between 1937 and 1939 alone, one and a half million Russians were liquidated. People were forced to inform on each other and in one region a quota was even established whereby everyone needed to inform on five people. If you could only name four, you had to be the fifth. In addition, Stalin’s policy of agricultural collectivism led to such poverty and famine that there were even reports of parents eating children. And all this whilst their leader exported tons of grain abroad. Amazingly, some people presumed Stalin didn’t know. Thousands wrote letters to tell him of the hardship that was being endured.
Shostakovich described the Eighth Symphony as a poem of suffering. In public he called it ‘an attempt to reflect the terrible tragedy of war’, a war in which twenty-seven million Soviet lives were lost. But in Testimony he elaborated: ‘I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but I feel no less pain for those killed on Stalin’s orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot, or starved to death. There were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler began. The war brought much new sorrow and much new destruction, but I haven’t forgotten the terrible pre-war years. That is what my symphonies are about, including Number Eight.’
The symphony was written in a staggeringly short time during the summer of 1943. The official dates for its composition are 1st July to 4th September though this is misleading as most of the work took place in his head and Shostakovich tended to have pieces fully thought through before he put pen to paper. In that sense he never ‘composed’ but simply wrote down the music he heard. Even so, the speed is remarkable, especially considering that he was suffering from gastric typhoid at the time. It was premièred on 4th November by the work’s dedicatee, the conductor Evgeny Mravinsky. Despite a positive reaction from the audience, the piece was attacked violently by the authorities, who denounced it as counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet. By the end of the war, the work was effectively withdrawn from the repertoire and in 1948 it was officially censored for its ‘unrelieved gloom’, and singled out for attack by Andrei Zhdanov, the Minister of Culture. He declared that it was ‘not a musical work at all’ and that anyone who denied this was in league with the West. ‘It is repulsive and ultra individualist. The music is like a piercing dentist’s drill, a musical gas chamber, the sort the Gestapo used.’ The scores were ordered to be recycled to save paper and all recordings of performances were destroyed. Even Shostakovich himself came to have mixed feelings about whether the piece should be performed. ‘Every report of its success made me ill. A new success meant a new coffin nail.’ It is in fact only relatively recently that the work has come to be truly admired throughout the world. It is ironic that it wasn’t played in the West because people thought it was only about the war, whilst it didn’t get performed in Russia because the authorities knew it wasn’t!
There is a school of thought that finds the work lacking some of the invention of previous symphonies. Questions are asked for instance as to why the opening is so similar to that of the Fifth Symphony. But that is to misunderstand the purpose of so much of Shostakovich’s music. He always chose meaning over logic and truth over beauty. If there are passages that sound depressingly similar to what had gone before, that is because he felt that that was the case in life. If there are sections that are ugly, that is because the world itself seemed ugly. If there are episodes that are unbearable, this corresponded to Shostakovich’s feelings too. There are moments that don’t seem to make sense, just as there were days that appeared meaningless to many Russians. The piece is inflated, mundane, and chaotic at times. But this was intentional. This was Shostakovich’s view of the world.
The vast opening movement (longer than the next three combined) does follow with striking similarity the structure of the corresponding movement in the Fifth. But there is more passion in the earlier piece, more sorrow. The second time around there is an emptiness in the pain: it is a hollow cry rather than an emotional heartbreak. The huge agonising outbursts that form the movement’s climax feel more like lonely screams in a desert than specific pleas for help. There is certainly something much more dehumanising about them than a similar outburst at the climax of the first movement of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, which Shostakovich knew well and to which they have been compared.
An opening movement like this was always going to be hard to contrast and it is not surprising that Shostakovich felt it necessary to follow it with not one, but two scherzos. They can hardly be called light relief, however: there is a mock grandeur about the first that maintains the bitterness of the opening Adagio, whilst the second seems to go the whole hog in expressing the total crushing of an individual. The relentlessness of its machine-like ostinato shows no pity at the human shrieks that ride above it: a scream before a final bullet, or the rush of a guillotine before it hits its mark. Starting fortissimo, the movement contains thirty-nine crescendos. There are only two diminuendos.
The fourth movement is possibly the most terrifying music Shostakovich ever wrote. It has an inward-looking quality that proves that the horrors of the mind are even worse than those of the body. The meaningless solitude of a helpless individual is even more frightening than the huge angry outbursts of the first movement. The intransigence of the bass line perfectly represents the monotony of life and, just as in a similar passacaglia in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, the solo upper parts depict the individual’s failing attempts to rise above this constriction. At each repetition one longs for the final variation; but every time the bass line fails to resolve positively and, doubling back on itself, reiterates yet again the agony of isolation. It takes over ten minutes of timeless grief before, like a blind man fumbling in the dark, the movement finally finds its way through to the C major it has been aspiring to all along. A violinist in the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Yakov Milkis, recalled telling Shostakovich how wonderful this transition to the finale was. ‘My dear friend,’ the composer replied, ‘if you only knew how much blood that C major cost me.’ He then fell silent and the violinist was left with the impression that he had ‘touched on something very sacred and private.’
There has long been a tradition of C minor symphonies emerging into the major for their optimistic finales. Beethoven’s Fifth, Bruckner’s Eighth, and Mahler’s Second all follow the basic plot archetype of tragedy to triumph. But despite the similar tonality it is doubtful whether Shostakovich’s Eighth can be bracketed with these. It certainly travels from darkness to light but it is a journey that yearns more for peace than for victory, and as such its closing bars are far more akin to those of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Whereas that work depicted an eternity of life, however, Symphony No.8 suggests an eternity of nothingness. Mahler felt that the world would always survive. Shostakovich was aware that it might not. It was with unmistakable irony that he wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman at the end of 1943: ‘1944 will be a year of happiness, joy and victory. The freedom-loving peoples will at long last throw off the yoke of Hitlerism and peace will reign throughout the world under the sunny rays of Stalin’s constitution. I am convinced of this and therefore experience the greatest joy.’ The suggestion that Shostakovich had titled the finale of his Eighth Symphony ‘Through cosmic space the Earth flies towards its doom’ sounds more genuine and there are certainly passages in this movement that seem to describe a coming annihilation of the world. In fact, the meaninglessness of much of its music, especially the central fugue, suggests this might already have taken place. The composer himself, however, said that ‘the course of history will inevitably bring the downfall of tyranny and evil and with it, the triumph of freedom and humanity’, and about this piece specifically he wrote that ‘on the whole it is an optimistic, life-asserting work. Its philosophical conception can be summed up in three words: life is beautiful. All that is dark and evil rots away, and beauty triumphs.’ It is hard to be convinced by the idea that the end of the piece is triumphant, but the final flute solo does at least suggest that the lone hero has survived, if not triumphed, and in those days, and in that country, perhaps just survival itself was something worth celebrating.
© Mark Wigglesworth 2005

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