Shostakovich - Symphony No. 8
report of the success of the Seventh or Eighth made me ill. A new success
meant a new coffin nail” . . . Dmitri Shostakovich
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.
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
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.
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”.
offers one possible interpretation of the composer's “coded meaning”, but
whether it is the “right” one is for you to decide.
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.
Movement (Allegretto): The Fearful Individual caught in this living
nightmare. This first of two very short “scherzi” is an extremely harsh
macabre, with a hint of the puppet, outwardly conforming - while inwardly
movements are played without a break.
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”..
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 -
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?
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,
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