SS No. 62 | Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8

by Glenn on September 8, 2017

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)

Symphony No. 8 in c minor, Op. 65
Allegro non troppo

first performance: 3 November 1943
Yevgeny Mravinsky | State Symphony Orchestra

I chose Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eight Symphony as my next listening exercise because it was mentioned some time ago in a Mahler Listserv I receive. The poster had recently heard this symphony performed and for him there was an immediate Mahler connection. He wrote,

“There are so many Mahlerian Magical Moments in
this symphony — constantly changing atmospherics; tension music, some of
it barely audible; pounding climaxes; a violin solo; other solos and
cadenzas all over the place; and even a major-minor seal a la M6, though
there’s something distorted in the minor part of it that is really
unsettling, and it is not repeated like it is in M6. But undoubtedly
reminiscent. There are frequent dissonances mixed with some gloriously
melodic passages.”

That writer is not the first to make connections between Shostakovich and Mahler.

The Eighth Symphony was first performed at a Festival of Soviet Music where the 25th anniversary of the Soviet Union was celebrated. Within a year the symphony was performed in both the United States and England. It wasn’t a big hit, though. According to Michael Steinberg, “commentary was respectful, reserved, puzzled, and the work was fairly quickly lost from view.”

It wasn’t easy to be a composer in the Soviet Union. If it’s not bad enough that there is no clamor for your symphony to be performed, when your symphony is mentioned it’s used as an example of bad music. When Andre Zhdanov, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, offered some clarity in 1948 for the practice of music and musicians in the Soviet Union, he used the Eight Symphony as an example of what not to do.

Another composer, Vladimir Zakharov, piled on by way of complaint 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.”

Nice for “the People” that he’s able to speak on behalf of them so forcefully. Seriously, though, it’s hard enough for a musician to get traction in the world for his music without a government official, claiming to speak on behalf of the populace, more or less putting an embargo on it.

Critics who initially had expressed support of the work found themselves in some hot water since they were now in conflict with “the People,” and had to revise their commentary somewhat to reflect better what “the People” actually thought.

In 1956, Shostakovich felt the time was right to advocate for this work and lamented

“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.”

This comment won me to Shostakovich’s side and helped me appreciate this symphony better. First, I like that he co-opted the word “People,” using it not in the cynical way that the government official did, claiming to speak on behalf of them when he was actually telling them, as a collective, what to think, but as a  servant, writing music for them as a people and not “the” People. Second, I appreciate how he firmly roots what feels (largely) like dark music in a dark time. The statement seemed to have an effect on the Communist Party because in 1958 it made a resolution declaring that Shostakovich, among other composers, was “rehabilitated.”

Steinberg’s essay was really helpful for understanding some of the pressure Dmitri was under—trying to write something fresh and original (rather than writing the Fifth over and over again) but then having the State-sponsored artist community give tepid responses before denouncing it before (years later) approving it. That’s a difficult environment in which to thrive.

*  *  *

This symphony is unconventional. It’s in five moments. The opening movement comprises something like 40% of the work. The last three movements are played without pause between them.

Movement I | A long adagio, though with tempo accelerations and dynamic changes. It’s bleak music, but considering the times in which it was composed, thoroughly appropriate.

Movement II | Some rather sarcastic music that finishes with a scream.

Movement III | Intense. Disquiet. Unrelenting. Steinberg: “Only Shostakovich could persist so long, longer than anyone else would dare, with such a brutal ostinato.” There is a little break in the middle to introduce a brief, but manic march.

Movement IV | A slow movement, with long held notes.

Movement V | Music for after the storm. Is that something like hope at the end?

I love how for Steinberg this is cause to talk about Mahler. Steinberg writes,

“A plan like this puzzles us less than it did audience in the 1940s. That is because we know our Mahler better.”

Steinberg establishes some connections between Mahler and the Soviet Union (and, by extension, Shostakovich), primarily through conductors such as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Herman Scherchen, Jascha Horenstein, and William Steinberg who “visited there” and who were “Mahlerians long before it was trendy.” Steinberg continues,

“Mahler’s symphonies are one adventure after another in rethinking symphonic design … Such Mahlerian ideas as a first movement hugely larger than any other … linked pairs or groups of movements … a series of character pieces in the middle of a symphony … a finale surprisingly gentle and modest after what has gone before … all these have left their mark on the Shostakovich Eighth.”

If the broad outline of the symphony is influenced by Mahler’s inventiveness, Steinberg is firm: “Something that is all Shostakovich’s own is the sound. … It is a sound that is hard-edged and lean rather than lush, tending more toward high treble and low bass than into the middle.

I’m not sure what is Mahler’s influence and what is just a similar practice, but I enjoyed that disproportionately expansive first movement, the connected third, fourth, and fifth movements, the martial rhythms/fanfares in the middle movements, and, overall, the creative approach to rethinking the symphony without going the route of deconstruction.

*  *  *

I listened to a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by André Previn, which was recorded in All Saints Church, London, in October 1992 (Ⓟ 1994 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Hamburg | 437 819-2).

Regarding this music, David Brown in the liner notes says,

“No work of Shostakovich is grimmer, more tragic, more violent.”

Hard to deny. I don’t know how much I will seek out this work in the future. While I can’t claim I heard Mahler connections in the music, when it was over, I heard the opening of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in my head. Different from Shostakovich, Mahler finishes that work with utter devastation. Shostakovich introduces a little burst of light at the end.

My first impression of this symphony is that it is bleak without feeling hopeless, which is a difficult tightrope to walk. In the last movement I was struck by how long Shostakovich carried that dominant feeling of darkness before introducing ever so gently the light of dawn at the end. That was a remarkable moment, and I appreciated how subtle he was about it. Was there a little foreshadowing of that moment in the transition into the final movement?


*Exclamation point for emphasis supplied by Steinberg.

One comment

[…] been a mixed bag. The First Symphony, which we heard live, was really interesting. The Fourth and Eighth Symphonies I didn’t quite resonate with immediately and I’m not sure if and when I’ll […]

by SS 64 | Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in d minor « on 24 October 2017 at 7:16 am. Reply #

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