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Composed: 1943

Length: 65 minutes

Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic
performance:
February 12, 1975, Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting

Between 1941 and 1945 Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies, his so-called "War Symphonies." The Seventh ("Leningrad") was initially regarded in the West as a noble contribution to the fight against Nazism, and later - as the Cold War heated up - as Soviet patriotic pap; today, with our deeper understanding of what the composer was about, it has achieved an unprecedented degree of respectability. The Ninth seems elusive, lightweight, and possibly satirical (but of what?); between them came the massive Eighth, dating from the dark days of 1943 and reflecting suffering on a cosmic scale.

In the summer of 1943 Shostakovich took up residence at a retreat maintained by the Soviet Composers' Union - far, physically, at any rate, from the noise of war - to write his Eighth Symphony. It was completed in only two months and given its first performance by the USSR State Symphony under Yevgeny Mravinsky in November in Moscow. The rigorously government-supervised Soviet musical press was cautiously favorable, commenting chiefly on how the music had conveyed the Russian people's fury in the face of the fascist invaders.

The composer's own published comments about the work, dated September 1943, are as follows:

"I wrote it very quickly…. When the Seventh Symphony was finished I intended to compose an opera and a ballet, and started work on an oratorio about the defenders of Moscow. Then I put aside the oratorio and began work on the Eighth Symphony. It reflects my…elevated creative mood, influenced by the joyful news of the Red Army's victories….

"The Eighth Symphony contains tragic and dramatic inner conflicts. But on the whole it is optimistic and life-asserting. The first movement is a long adagio, with a dramatically tense climax. The second movement is a march, with scherzo elements, and the third is a dynamic march. The fourth movement, in spite of its march form, is sad in mood. The fifth and final movement is bright and gay, like a pastoral, with dance elements and folk motifs.

"The philosophical conception of my new work can be summed up in these words: life is beautiful. All that is dark and evil rots away, and beauty triumphs."

The mockery, particularly in the final words, is inescapable. Privately, according to friends, he considered it his own requiem - although the composer still had three decades to live.

In March 1944, the Symphony was savaged at a Composers' Union plenum, with Prokofiev among those casting aspersions. And in the broad 1948 condemnation by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of "decadent formalism" in the arts, Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony (ironically, along with the Sixth Symphony of Prokofiev) was blasted for its "pessimism, unhealthy individualism, extreme subjectivism, and willful complexity." The Eighth was in effect dead in the Soviet water, barely to be heard from again until the post-Stalin thaw of the late 1950s.

The British Shostakovich scholar Hugh Ottoway has noted, "At the root of the Eighth is the problem of coming to grips, emotionally and philosophically, with violence and suffering on a catastrophic scale…. In 1941, comradeship and confidence in victory had seemed philosophy enough [a reference to the Seventh Symphony]; but later the sense of human catastrophe… made a positive, hopeful vision, at least of the orthodox, public sort, very difficult for Shostakovich to affirm."

The Eighth Symphony opens with a darkly ponderous statement by the cellos and double basses, which the violins take over with an upward leap followed by a "wanly contemplative theme" (Ottoway) in the second violins. The ensuing development here is brutally intense, while the sudden segue into allegro is only one of many shocks applied by the composer in a construct that allows little room for lyricism. The development culminates in a gigantic crescendo launched by the bassoons and bass clarinet, joined by blaring brass and then, one of the movement's several masterstrokes: the side-drum beats out the rhythm of the "wanly contemplative" theme, altering the theme's mild mood completely. And then enters another of those horrific, bristling marches that is by now a part of the Shostakovich musical persona: woodwinds shriek, brass roars, drums thunder. Next - the canny dramatist again on display - a crashing silence and the downcast melody of the English horn before the movement ends in tense calm.

The two following movements are both grim marches-cum-scherzos. The first suggests some shuddering, volcanic upheaval. (In a performance I once attended the conductor used a huge scooping motion with both hands, starting at his knees, to get the sound he wanted.) This is ferocious stuff, with thick doublings creating a feeling of crushing weightiness.

The monomaniacal third movement, with its (again) shrieking woodwinds, ratchets up the tension another notch. If there's a theme here it escapes these ears, although the mad bugle-call alternating with the snare drum's rattling is certainly a memorable effect.

The energy of the "war machine" (Ottoway) spent after a harrowing superclimax, the fourth movement creeps in bleakly. Some ghostly noodling by the clarinet, over powerful string pizzicatos, and a shockingly playful bassoon solo usher in the finale, which initially sends out positive signals reminiscent of the pastoral sections of the "Leningrad" Symphony. Yet, knowing the composer, one doesn't trust the jollity of the wind-play (with particularly pungent writing for the bass clarinet); and indeed there comes another battering, angry brass-and-drums climax midway through. The bass clarinet returns, followed by a quizzical little passage in double stops for solo violin, then a sentimental viola solo, more wind noodling. Where are we headed? Surely there's more destructive thunder to come. In a final dramatic coup, however, Shostakovich offers a fadeout, in a strangely menacing C major, to end this scary, theatrical monster of a Symphony in a mood of indeterminacy.

-- Herbert Glass is English-language
annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival. He also contributes to several periodicals in the U.S. and Europe.