On Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony

[This essay initially appeared as the program note for the DePaul Concert Orchestra’s performance of this work on March 16, 2019.]

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65

Though this is surely an odd thing to say about one of the most performed composers of the 20th century, there is a sense in which Dmitri Shostakovich’s music is underrated.  So relentlessly tragic were the historical and political circumstances of mid-century Soviet Russia that his creative achievement and craftsmanship are often overshadowed by the extra-musical aspects of his life.  Shostakovich reception suffers, as it were, from over-contextualization, or perhaps more precisely, from being wrongly contextualized. 21st century US concert programming tends to focus on a standard repertoire that is presented as beyond reproach and timeless; thus when a music that is clearly not timeless presents itself, our tendency seems to be to swing in the opposite direction.   To ignore Shostakovich’s craftsmanship as a composer, though, is to do him a tremendous disservice, and is also to distort the most interesting contextual aspects of his music.

The symphony as a genre had a hard time in the 20th century; even by the end of the 19th, composers were beginning to think that it was “written out.”  There are no symphonies to speak of by some major early 20th century composers like Debussy and Ravel.  And while the likes of Stravinsky, Copland, Barber, and Bernstein all wrote symphonies, these, for the most part, are not the pieces that jump to mind first we think of when talk about them.  Shostakovich, however, wrote 15 symphonies, more than any major symphonist since Beethoven.  He also made the genre of the symphony speak to 20th century—he made its passé formal conventions culturally relevant in a way that few others have.  The 7th, the so-called “Leningrad” symphony, written during World War II, was heard by millions all over the world on international radio broadcasts.  Shostakovich was on the cover of TIME magazine, a thing that would be hard to imagine in today’s cultural milieu. The current work, the 8th symphony, was also written during World War II and came on the heals of this international celebrity.  In spite of his international stature, though, Shostakovich continued to face persecution at home; little did liberal-minded American listeners know that Shostakovich's wartime music has as much to do with the brutality of the Nazis as it does the oppressive regime in his own country.

Shostakovich managed to engage with the tradition of the symphony on its own terms; but he also did this in ways that spoke compellingly and forcefully to a contemporaneous 20th century audience.  He achieves unity of the five movements of the 8th symphony through an old-fashioned quasi-Beethovenian development of a few small motifs.  Both the primary and secondary motifs are simple intervals. One is a stepwise motif, a 2nd (sometimes major, sometimes minor), that always goes up or down and returns to its starting pitch—a motif of futility.  The other is simply a perfect 5th.  

These two motifs are presented viciously by the cellos and basses in the C minor first movement's introductory bars: C, B-flat, C, followed by C, G.  This gives way to the beginning of the sonata form proper and what is, quite simply, an extremely long first theme in the violins.  There is no obvious structural cadence; the listener may be expecting a four- or eight-measure theme, yet this one is twenty-five at least (at a very slow tempo), and evinces an oppressively pessimistic affect.  This is typical of Shostakovich's rhetoric—to understand a listener’s expectations and to provide something that is exaggeratedly, not merely slightly, more or less than what they expect.  It is a rhetoric that is meant to make 19th century symphonies look well-behaved, while simultaneously casting the 20th century equivalent as unruly, mangled, deformed, excessive, hyperbolic.

After brief development by the winds, a second theme emerges in the violins (accompanied nervously by the other strings) forced into an asymmetrical 5/4 meter, which gives it a hobbled and broken character.  The motivic 5th descends and is followed by the indecisive 2nd, now ascending.

The ensuing development section, like many of Shostakovich's, is a steady angst-ridden crescendo that puts both themes in guises that one could hardly have foreseen, climaxing with the first theme played canonically as a demonic march.  The percussion interrupt to signal the recapitulation, as if a distorted paraphrase of the same moment in the first movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Hardly noticeable because of deafening and volume over-wrought afftect is how literal a recapitulation it is: the trumpets and trombones play is exactly the same notes that opened the symphony in the cellos and bass.  From the dust following the violent collapse arises a plaintive English horn recitative. As if reminiscent of the same moment in a different Beethoven symphony, No. 5, the English horn takes the end of the introductory theme and spins it into some of the most direct music Shostakovich ever wrote.  The second theme is recapitulated in a major key which, not altogether surprisingly, doesn't last. The first theme of the sonata form returns to close the movement, now all of the intervals directed downward, over a chromatically descending bassline. The movement closes on a C major triad with an added D—it is the stepwise motif present as a harmony (C-D-C), and it deprives us of a real resolution.

The second movement is the first of two Scherzos, this one a driving, unhinged march.  The stepwise motif is now a half-step heard in the first bar, and the entire melody outlines the fifth from D-flat to A-flat.  The Trio section illustrates another of the ways in which Shostakovich engages symphonic tradition.  Trios of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven symphonies are often more harmonically relaxed than the Minuet or Scherzo they follow, and some feature solo wind players.  Shostakovich's Trio involves a solo piccolo and E-flat clarinet, both playing demented circus music, before a more bombastic return of the opening material.

The third movement, the second Scherzo, is cast as a Toccata.  Shostakovich creates a six-minute movement in which some instrument plays a quarter note on every single beat of every single measure. There is no relenting; it is a non-stop, inhuman, machine-like drive forward, a classical form subjected to one of Stalin’s five-years plans.  The motivic 5th is hidden in the arpeggios, but more interesting is the location of the step-wise motif.  It is present in the oboe and clarinet as a slow, shrill, high E, F, E.  An octave displacement of the final E gives it an added element that is both bitter and expressive.  The Trio section again features a solo wind player: in this case, a trumpet playing a ferocious, sarcastic military fanfare mocked savagely by the rest of the orchestra. The strings are muted for the return of the opening, the brutality now as if seen from afar, detached. The movement climaxes with the timpani pounding out the quarter notes, accompanied brutally by the rest of the ensemble.

The percussion interrupt, as they had done in the first movement, to signal the beginning of the fourth.  Shostakovich casts this slow movement in another antique form, the Passacaglia.  This serves at least two functions.  One is, again, to engage older music. Besides the ground bass Baroque form that is the reference point, music like the Finale of Brahms's 4th symphony come to mind.  The other function is maybe more personal.  After three movements of emotional intensity, a Passacaglia seems like the right vehicle for obsessive introspection following a trauma.

Examining the repeating eight-measure ground bass line itself (heard immediately after a final tam-tam crash) the step-wise motif is immediately audible; less clear is that the two central notes in the bassline, G# and D#, are a 5th apart.  This theme actually resembles the first movement's main theme in other ways – there are distinct rhythmic similarities, as well as a similar cadential gestures.  It is as if the Passacaglia theme is some distant, ghostly half-memory of previous music.  The movement meanders on, through a headache, as if trying to remember.  Haunted horn, piccolo, and clarinet solos litter the musical landscape as the ground bass begins inevitably again and again.  The clarinets, as if sensing a distant ray of light, stumble as if by accident onto a C major triad, we are surprised to find ourselves already in the Finale.  The key choice is significant, as is the method of arrival—it is surely another direct reference to Beethoven's 5th symphony, whose course outlines a C minor to C major trajectory and does so with no break between the final movements.  For those really keeping score, the harmonic relations are even the same: Beethoven’s long-held A-flat major chord’s bass note eventually resolves to G, then to C at the beginning of the Finale of the 5th symphony; Shostakovich’s G#, A-flat’s enharmonic, resolves to G (instead of F double-sharp), then to C at the beginning of Shostakovich’s Finale.

Parenthetically, Beethoven's 5th symphony, of course, had significant extra-musical meaning in World War II, the dot-dot-dot-dash being the Morse code letter "V."  (What could be more demoralizing to the Nazis than the allies appropriating the great masterpiece of a German composer to stand for "Victory?")  

In Shostakovich’s symphony, instead of a blazing fanfare, what we get is a modest bassoon solo, still obsessively fussing over the step-wise motion, which is now C-D-C.  It remains a motif of futility.  The melody begins with the motif, comes back to it midway though, and finally closes on it.  We seem not to have gotten anywhere.

The ensuing music is a series of variations in different families of instruments.  A secondary theme involves a grim peasant dance in the cellos and basses, interrupted by demonic fiddle music.  This is followed by a fugato whose subject is, inevitably, the step-wise motif. At the climactic moment the percussion re-enters and the opening of the first movement returns arrestingly, just as it had in that movement's recapitulation.  Here though, it is reharmonized, mangled, transfigured, and quickly collapses. The recapitulation is compressed and sardonic, the peasant dance now heard in a single bass clarinet and solo violin, and the bassoon winding its way back to the opening theme; the recapitulation ends with an ever ascending solo violin line.

What are we to make of the coda of the symphony?  It is a static C major triad in the upper strings, with the step-wise motif repeated below by the flute and pizzicato violas; chromatic notes mar the texture.  Though a pure C major eventually arrives, it seems more a moment of resignation than resolution.  It seems to be a triad of survival, not of triumph and is—maybe, if one were to find a glimmer of hope is such resolutely negative music—the only thing that Shostakovich allows himself to believe in.  Given all the composer had been through in his lifetime until that point, at least it is something.