Symphony No. 8

After the famous Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad”, composed in 1941, two years later Shostakovich wrote a second monumental work related to the war events – the Symphony No. 8 in C-minor. Early in the war he was sent to the town of Khuibyshev, where state institutions, embassies and the Bolshoi Theatre were evacuated in the autumn of 1941 in the event of Moscow being threatened with attack. It was there that the Seventh Symphony was completed and first performed by the theatre’s orchestra under the baton of Samuil Samosud in 1942. At the end of that year Shostakovich got seriously ill and in March 1943 he was sent to a sanatorium near Moscow to recover. It was because of the calmer war situation at the time that he decided to return to the capital, where he began work on his next symphony and completed it quickly, in only about two months during the summer. In September the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, a very close friend of Shostakovich’s, arrived in Moscow; he was the first performer of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies with the Leningrad Philharmonic and was now very interested in the new work, albeit still in sketch form. At the end of October the score was completed, Mravinsky, to whom it was dedicated, began rehearsals with the State Symphony Orchestra and conducted the premiere of the Eighth Symphony on 4 November 1943 in Moscow. According to those close to Shostakovich, it was the culmination of the tragic in his oeuvre, although he himself publicly described it as life-affirming. However, due to the undeniably prevailing tragic imagery, unsuitable for the propaganda ideas of the authorities, the official evaluation was negative. The symphony was criticized at the Communist Party Plenum in March 1944, and after the famous Resolution of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of 14 February 1948 “On Vano Muradelli’s opera The Great Friendship”, in which Shostakovich, along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Myaskovsky, and others, again (after the debunking article in the newspaper. “Pravda in 1936 about his opera Katerina Izmailova) was accused of “decadent formalism” and “anti-nationalism”, and the Eighth Symphony was condemned for “pessimism, unhealthy individualism, extreme subjectivism, and deliberate complexity” and was not performed for eight years. Only after Stalin’s death and the changes in power it would return to the concert podium in 1956 under the baton of Samuil Samosud with the Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.

Like most of Shostakovich’s symphonies, the structure of the five-movement Eighth does not follow standard symphonic form and development. The composer would describe it thus, The Eighth Symphony contains tragic and dramatic inner conflicts. But overall it is optimistic and life-affirming. The first movement is a long Adagio, with a dramatically tense climax. The second movement is a march, with elements of scherzo, and the third is a dynamic march. The fourth movement, despite its march form, is sad in mood. The fifth and final movement is bright and cheerful, like a pastoral, with dance elements and folk motifs. The philosophical concept of my new work can be summed up in the following words: life is beautiful. All that is dark and evil perishes, and beauty triumphs.

Yet there are other interpretations of the hidden meaning of the Eighth’s imagery. The conductor Kurt Sanderling sees in the attacking drive of the motoric rhythm in the third movement, conventionally called the Toccata, the crushing of the individual by the Soviet system; in the finale, according to David Haas’s analysis, the hero has not triumphed, but merely survived. While British Shostakovich scholar Hugh Ottaway notes, At the heart of the Eighth is the problem of dealing, emotionally and philosophically, with violence and suffering on a catastrophic scale. In 1941 empathy and confidence in victory seemed a sufficient philosophical basis for the Seventh Symphony, but later the sense of human catastrophe made the official positive, hopeful vision very difficult for Shostakovich to affirm.

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