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Shostakovich - Symphony No. 8

“Every report of the success of the Seventh or Eighth made me ill. A new success meant a new coffin nail”  . . . Dmitri Shostakovich

In the late 1970s, Testimony, Solomon Volkov's edition of Shostakovich's purported memoirs, sneaked under the Iron Curtain and caused a storm of controversy. As the dust settled following the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, we began to see that Testimony is broadly true. Shostakovich was no mere tub-thumping propagandist, but a sensitive artist deeply affected by the atrocities around him. He loathed, perhaps not the ethos of Communism, but those (notably Stalin) who had hijacked Communism and forged it into an inhumane Totalitarianism. 

It is emerging how truly courageous were artists like Shostakovich, and how appalling the danger. As an eminent composer, he was terribly exposed. One wrong word, a nod to the wrong person, music a shade too abstract, and he was in mortal danger. Imagine how it must feel to see official posters advertising a recital  “given by D. Shostakovich, Enemy of the People”. Once, he evaded arrest only because the arresting official was himself arrested. 

He survived by adapting outwardly to authoritarian demands. He retained his integrity by subversive means, encoding his music with “superficial” meanings that concealed deeper, “real” meanings which the common people could recognise. Uncle Joe and Co. heard only music to rouse the rabble, while the people wept. Here in the West, unaware of the “hidden agenda”, many similarly heard only empty-headed noise. As the agenda comes out of hiding, so does the true stature of Shostakovich's music. 

Of his two wartime symphonies, the Seventh (Leningrad, 1942) gained worldwide fame as a sabre-rattler portraying the valiant struggle of the Soviet People against the Fascist Oppressor. But it was a double-entendre, with an underlying, “real” meaning having as much to do with the suffering of the Russian People under the Stalinist Regime. The Eighth (1943) tells a similar tale, but singing more subtly of yearning, oppression, fear, inhumanity, desolation, and hope for the future in a far from certain present. “More subtly”, perhaps, but also far more furiously! It’s been suggested that the reason for this is that when Shostakovich, who had thought Stalin’s Terror to be a punishment visited on the overly-liberal Leningrad, was moved to the comparative safety of Moscow he discovered to his horror that the Terror was pandemic. His reaction, via the Eighth, was understandable, as was (I suppose) the criticism that was then heaped on him for being negative when the war was being won, and anyway, why had he previously written victorious music when the night was at its blackest? Yet, there is nothing “victorious” about the end of the Seventh, nor does the Eighth end entirely “pessimistically”. 

This description offers one possible interpretation of the composer's “coded meaning”, but whether it is the “right” one is for you to decide. 

First Movement (Adagio - allegro non troppo): The bitterness of existence under the yoke of tyranny. Taking up almost half the symphony, this oozes stupendous structural integrity. However, “traditional” analysis is virtually impossible  - like a cloud, the closer you get, the less you see. It sounds like a sonata-form, but it isn't. Basic main themes are immediately subjected to fluid, organic development, generating a structure following a dramatic course. A portentous opening evolves into an adagio of quite indecent emotional intensity. The central section brutalises the materials in a succession of seismic climaxes, yielding to a long lament culminating in a restatement of the opening phrases, now ringing like the Last Trump. If you know the popular Fifth Symphony, you will find this daunting first movement structure reassuringly familiar. 

Second Movement (Allegretto): The Fearful Individual caught in this living nightmare. This first of two very short “scherzi” is an extremely harsh danse macabre, with a hint of the puppet, outwardly conforming - while inwardly screaming. 

The remaining movements are played without a break. 

Third Movement (Allegro non troppo): The constant fear of a Knock at the door. The second “scherzo” is a prelude to the Largo, just as that Knock was a prelude to incarceration. It pounds obsessively, brain-numbingly insistent. Shostakovich's acidic wit surfaces in the central “posthorn galop”, evidently cocking a sarcastic snook (as in the Sixth Symphony) at Stalin's “circus of horrors”.. 

Fourth Movement (Largo): Imprisonment - static, chilled, drained, the frozen heart of the symphony. Out of the darkest recess of this grey limbo, through one of those naive but inspired modulations, pops the Finale - 

Fifth Movement (Allegretto): Dreaming of Freedom. Almost rotund good humour marks the first friendly sound in the entire symphony. “Optimism Rules, OK?” No, not quite. Optimism is violently shaken by a fearsome reminder, from the First Movement, that the time for dancing in the streets is not yet. But does the coda nevertheless seem to be reaching out, stealthily now, towards some imagined shred of Hope, and, at the very end, catching and holding onto it? 

I think Shostakovich's symphonies belong to the same genre as his music for film and theatre. The symphonies reveal themselves as a sort of “ballet of the imagination”, enacting musical dramas reflecting the drama of the human condition. As such, detailed knowledge of the circumstances (and Shostakovich's “codes”) might be thought necessary for a full appreciation of the music. Yet, the more we find out, the more horrific it is: maybe we should listen with only a dim understanding - knowing the whole truth might make this awesome music just too much to bear.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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