Reflections on the Symphonies of Shostakovich
In seeking Shostakovich, I’ve discovered one thing above all: his genius is too often obscured, if not lost altogether, in the babble of commentary that surrounds his work. While an accurate understanding of the historical context is both useful and inspiring, the most important place to look is the one place to which we are often pointed last: his music.
Yet even where his music is concerned, the depth and breadth of his music too often disappears from view. While I have no statistics and can’t confirm this, it seems we are offered in live performance, more than any others among the symphonies, the Seventh and the Fifth. The Fifth appeared in New York classical radio’s WQXR and Q2 2013 year-end Countdown lists, and nothing else. The Fifth, and certainly the Seventh, are not Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies, but they seem to be the ones we’ve come to know best.
But isn’t this a vicious cycle? We’ve come to know them, perhaps moved by the stories that surround them, so we are offered them most often. Then we come to know them even better, so they are, if not comfortable musical companions, at least ones we recognize and feel we understand. But how can the ear expand past these parameters to find the music of Shostakovich that is the most searing, poignant, powerful—and profound—if we are not exposed to other works?
I’m not sure what makes Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, particularly, so popular—more so, say, than the Fifteenth, which is certainly as accessible, or so it seems to me. The Fifth has a great deal to commend it musically, of course. But I find that its strident finale, particularly, diminishes its power.
As for the Seventh, I have to think that, on musical (as opposed to historical) terms, its popularity stems from the so-called “Invasion” theme in the opening movement. The theme repeats, relentlessly; it stays in one’s head long after (years after, forever after) the music stops. I was drawn into and mesmerized by the growing horror of that theme on first hearing. As Shostakovich said, “Idle critics will no doubt reproach me for imitating Ravel’s Bolero. Well, let them, for this is how I hear the war.” [Wilson 173] The Invasion theme continues to move me when I listen to it today, but what I recognize, as I did not back then, is that I’m not listening to the music, but to the history. Beyond that, I wonder how many of us who have had this experience with the Seventh engage with, let alone remember and are affected by, the remainder of the movements to the same extent?
Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony is another matter, entirely. As I listen, I think, how can I possibly move on from this to other symphonies—or move back? How could I ever want to leave the experience of being inside this music? The answer, for me, is to listen again and again—to try to achieve what Elizabeth so eloquently wrote in a comment in a previous post: “to hear so deeply that the music enters me, and I become it.” I hope some of you will continue to join me on the journey.
The Eighth Symphony: The Context
Shostakovich composed the Eighth Symphony in just two months. At the time of its premiere, in November, 1943, Leningrad was still under siege, but “the Soviets had started to repulse the Germans,” and “‘optimistic’ celebration rather than ‘pessimistic’ tragedy was the order of the day.” [Wilson 201]
Laurel Fay observed, “Shostakovich’s failure to limn the psychological climate—to provide an optimistic, even triumphant finale—was a letdown to those inclined to read the symphony, like its predecessor, as an authentic wartime documentary.” [Fay Loc 2018] On its premiere, Shostakovich’s close friend, the polymath Ivan Sollertinsky, while recognizing the Eighth’s superiority to the Seventh Symphony [Fay Loc 2003], wrote, “the music is significantly tougher and more astringent than the Fifth or the Seventh and for that reason it is unlikely to become popular. . .”. [Fay Loc 2009]
Sollertinsky’s remark proved to be prescient. Fay wrote that, “unlike its predecessor, the Eighth Symphony was not immediately taken up and championed by many conductors,” either in the Soviet Union or abroad. [Fay Loc 2032] Worse yet, in February of 1948, the Eighth Symphony, among other works, was banned by decree of the Party’s Central Committee following a series of hearings on charges brought against “deviant artists.” [Taruskin, Oxford 9] On the first day of the hearings, Vladimir Zakharov, artistic director of the Pyatnitsky Folk Chorus [Fay Loc 5517] took the floor to denounce it:
Debate continues among us about whether Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony is good or bad. In my opinion, the question is meaningless. I reckon that from the people’s point of view, the Eighth Symphony is not a musical work at all, but a “work” that has nothing whatever do to with the art of music. [Taruskin, Oxford 10]
Like Sollertinsky, cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter, evaluating the symphony on its merits as opposed to political expedience, believed it to be among Shostakovich’s greatest works. Thirty years later, Richter, in assessing Shostakovich’s music, identified the Eighth Symphony as “the decisive work in [Shostakovich’s] output.” [Wilson 201]
We will give Shostakovich the last word. On December 21, 1949, he wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman:
During my bout of illness, or rather illnesses, I picked up the score of one of my compositions and read it through from beginning to end. I was astounded by its qualities, and thought that I should be proud and happy that I had created such a work. I could hardly believe that it was I who had written it. [Glikman 38]
We can’t know for sure, but Glikman makes a good case for the proposition that Shostakovich was referring to the Eighth Symphony. Glikman observed that “this letter is the first time I know of that he gave such a powerful expression to his belief and pride in himself as a composer.” [Glikman 248, n. 37]
After the ban, the Eighth Symphony wasn’t performed again until 1956. “In 1962, when Jan Krenz conducted the symphony in his presence at the Edinburgh Festival, the composer, overcome, burst into tears . . .”. [Wilson 522]
The Eighth Symphony: The Music
The Eighth Symphony, in C minor, is in five movements, the last three of which are played without pause. The symphony is orchestrated for “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.”
At approximately seventy minutes, the Eighth Symphony’s length is exceeded only by that of the Seventh. Unlike the Seventh, however, the Eighth presents a compelling musical narrative from the first note to the last. It is not easy to grasp the whole on first hearing, but the whole is evident, and there are no longueurs: every note of it means. When I think of this symphony, words that come to mind include harrowing, poignant, occasionally sardonic, and, above all, profound.
There has long been a tradition of C minor symphonies emerging into the major for their optimistic finales. Beethoven’s Fifth, Bruckner’s Eighth and Mahler’s Second all follow the basic plot archetype of tragedy to triumph. But despite the similar tonality it is doubtful whether Shostakovich’s Eighth can be bracketed with these. It certainly travels from darkness to light but it is a journey that yearns more for peace than for victory, and as such its closing bars are far more akin to those of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.
Yakov Milkis, a violinist with the Leningrad Philharmonic from 1957-1974, told of standing next to Shostakovich on the deck of a ferry from England to France. As they stood, Milkis told Shostakovich that
. . . one of the most remarkable things in the work is the transition to the Finale . . . the music resolves into C major like a ray of sunlight. . . . . Dmitri Dmitriyevich looked at me, and I will never forget the expression of his eyes. “My dear friend, if you only knew how much blood that C major cost me.” [Wilson 356-357]
We cannot know that cost. But we have the symphony, and we can listen to it speak beyond what words can possibly convey.
The Eighth Symphony: Notes on Listening
For this symphony, I’ve made detailed notes of what my own listening has yielded so far. The notes are included below, with items that may be of particular interest highlighted in bold. (The listening list is at the end of the post.)
How I listened: As a person without technical training, I chose, for a “closer listen,” to focus on shifts in instrumentation, rhythms, and dynamics. (Describing harmonic shifts remains, for me, out of reach.) For this symphony, I purchased a study copy of the score, with which I confirmed what I heard as best I could.
Three note phrases: Shostakovich used simple three-note phrases built on intervals of a major or minor second throughout the symphony. A three-note phrase begins the symphony, and versions of the phrase may be heard quite clearly at the beginnings of the second and fifth movements. The range of musical and emotional moods Shostakovich created with that small element is nothing short of astonishing.
Some General Observations on Orchestration: I marvel at Shostakovich’s use of “unlikely” instruments in solo roles (as Stephen Johnson notes, the piccolo is a notable example) and his use of spare, “chamber music” orchestration. His deep understanding of the complex and nuanced character of his chosen instruments is vividly on display in these passages.
Stephen Johnson’s Discovering Music: For a brief, non-technical introduction to the symphony, try Stephen Johnson’s engaging 20-minute introduction on BBC Radio 3’s Discovering Music here. I found the use of audio examples to illustrate aspects of the symphony particularly helpful.
First movement (Adagio-Allegro non troppo)
Some things to listen for: the three-note phrase, the “dancelike” rhythms, and the cor anglais solo at the movement’s close.
At almost thirty minutes, this is the longest movement of the five. Using traditional sonata form (exposition, development, and recapitulation), the movement limns a harrowing musical journey. Throughout the movement—and the symphony as a whole—subtle shifts in orchestral color create motion within the motion of the notes themselves.
The movement begins on an emphatic three-note phrase in the cellos and contrabasses. Second violins and violas stride in, and the upper and lower strings alternate phrases before joining in stately steps to usher in a plaintive theme on first violins. The lower strings subside, leaving the upper strings to rise unanchored [4 1:45], soon joined by flutes and trumpets. The flutes disappear, and cellos and contrabasses re-emerge, though not for long [5 3:10]. A discordant passage, begun on winds alone, signals another shift [6 4:27]. The flutes rise and come to rest on halting rhythms in the strings, a dancelike beat thrown off-kilter by its rendering in 5/4 time, over which the first violins voice a gently rising and falling line [9 5:36]. The rhythm drops out, and the cor anglais takes up the violins’ long-limbed line [10 7:20]. As the cor anglais drops away, the music turns toward a meditation among the first violins, cellos, and contrabasses [11 7:55] before shifting back to the hesitating dancelike rhythms we’d heard before [12 9:50].
The tempo slows on flutes, accompanied by violas [13 10:36]. Little by little, the orchestral texture increases. Cellos join the violas; oboes and clarinets echo and embellish the figures first sounded on the flutes [13 11:10]. The cor anglais joins the flutes on their ascent; the bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, and contrabasses enter; and, even as the highest notes rise upward, the orchestral color descends into its deepest reach [14 11:55]. The horns lead in the rest of the brass. The timpani sounds, then a marching drum, and the piccolo shrieks [17 12:50]. The urgency of the music continues to increase. The orchestra climbs on a martial beat, drawing back as dissonant horns accompany rising violins [19-20 13:04], soon joined by winds, strings, and other brass, in a relentless surge of notes and sound. To sharp chords on brass and contrabasses, the tempo accelerates, and the rhythm abruptly shifts [33 14:25]. The winds shriek; the density of notes increases; the horns call out. The music ascends, then drops into a relentless march [43 15:38]. A drumroll and timpani issue in two thundering orchestral chords; within them, the brass proclaim a three-note phrase [49-50 16:40]. Brass proclamations issue in three more huge chords, and the chords stop as abruptly as they had begun.
A cor anglais emerges from a haze of strings [52 17:50]. Oboe and clarinet offer brief accompaniment, only to fade away [53 19:56]. The cor anglais finds refuge in a single note, then unfolds to gently dancing rhythms in the strings [53 20:49]. As the cor anglais fades into silence, the first violins and violas wind in spirals above a flowing cello ground [54 21:30]. The upper strings shift to gentle rhythms as cellos and contrabasses voice a deep legato line [55 22:35]. A call on trumpets and horns rises and subsides [56 23:53]. The pulse in the strings slows. The trumpets and horns sound softly as the violins echo phrases we’ve heard before. A lone trumpet sounds a final, receding echo [57 25:52] as the movement ends.
Second movement (Allegretto)
The first movement’s quiet close is shattered by a brash, insistent march. Early on, the piccolos join in, adding shrill sequences of falling notes, echoed on strings and lower register winds and later, with a trace of mockery, on the horns [65-66 1:14]. Yet just as our ears fall securely into step, the strings transform the march into a flowing stream. A piccolo emerges, floating up briefly before whistling over a lightly pointillist ground, joined intermittently on bassoons and contrabassoon and “piccolo” clarinet. [67-71 1:42-2:40] Shifts like these occur in quick succession as the march builds to a seesawing, increasingly frantic climax. We are drawn down from the pinnacle by the xylophone and higher register winds, led by the flutes. [92 5:21] The winds slowly drop out, leaving a solo flute and the contrabassoon. After a brief passage on winds [95 5:56], the strings offer a lyrical passage before the final orchestral blast. The movement closes on the timpani’s emphatic sounding of a three-note phrase.
Third movement (Allegro non troppo)
The third movement opens to incessant motoring rhythms on the violins, as if a Hanon exercise had escaped into the symphonic world. Lower strings punch out single staccato chords. Oboes and clarinets cry out, and trumpets scorch each phrase’s final note. Trombones, tuba, and timpani take up the punctuating blasts begun by the lower strings, a subtle yet emphatic timbral shift. [100 1:35] The strings drop out, and brass and winds drive up the heat. The brass, except the horns, drop out, the strings return, and the rhythmic pattern shifts again: in two note hiccups, it stops and starts [104 2:20]. Another shift, and the strings resume their motoring rhythms, punctuated, now in every measure, on brass and contrabasses [108 2:44]. The urgency and volume continue to increase; a fuller complement of winds and brass interject; the earlier cry of oboes and clarinets becomes a shout [111 3:22]. The orchestration thins out to leave the cellos and contrabasses on their own [113 3:40]. Everything changes, and we are in the midst of an oom-pah band [114 3:51]. Cymbals, bass drum, contrabass, and brass anchor the beat, while trumpets offer up a circuslike tune, punctuated with ascending runs high in the winds. The band fades out, and motoring violins resume with even greater urgency than at the start [122 5:09]. The movement closes on an orchestral crescendo of incessant chords that just as suddenly disappears, and a drumroll augurs what’s to come.
Fourth movement (Largo)
The fourth movement opens on a blast of percussion and huge orchestral chords. The initial clangor dies away as winds and brass lead us downward and drop out to reveal the strings’ deepest sounds. It’s as if we’re lost in Dante’s dark wood, with our only guide a somber passacaglia’s repeating bass. [134 1:09] Solo instruments emerge—a horn [135 5:10], a piccolo [136 6:20], a flute [137 7:03]—only to wander in the dark. A susurrus of flutes yields to a solo clarinet [138 8:05], and clarinets, singly and together on a ground of strings, wend tentatively toward the light. With another, brief susurrus of flutes and ascending notes from the clarinets, the shift from C minor to C major, on which the fifth movement begins, emerges from the dark.
Fifth movement (Allegretto)
Some things to listen for: solo instrument and small ensemble passages, three-note phrases, and possible echoes of the Seventh Symphony’s Invasion theme.
The fifth movement, like the first, though shorter and distinctly different in emotional import, describes a clear narrative arc. Solo passages and spare orchestration yield to a crescendo that culminates in a massive climax, only to subside in a poignant morendo at the movement’s—and symphony’s—close. Throughout, Shostakovich once again demonstrates his nuanced mastery of every instrument in the orchestra—notably those, like the piccolo, bass clarinet, and bassoon, the use of which is too often confined to decoration and comic effects.
A bassoon opens the movement on a three-note phrase with spare interjections from bassoon and contrabassoon. The strings enter on a lyrical sweep that swells briefly and subsides. A lone flute comes dancing in [144 1:39], accompanied on triangle and pizzicato strings, with three-note legato phrases on horn. The flute and strings drop out, and lower register winds and cor anglais enter on a staccato figure over which cellos introduce a long-limbed lyrical line. Oboes enter with a trace of laughter [146 3:03], pushing aside the cellos to offer their own turn at lyricism, punctuated by bassoons. The cor anglais comes in[146 3:33], then all drop out.
The strings enter [147 3:41], soon accompanied by members of the winds and brass, and the music changes course. Staccato figures on trumpet sound out what I hear as an echo of the Seventh Symphony’s Invasion theme [149 4:23-30]. Yet this is not the beginning of a relentless build-up. Instead, the trumpets drop out [150 4:30], and whirling strings and winds, undergirded by guttural humming from bass clarinet and bassoon, lead into what I hear as a round. The cellos and contrabasses [153 5:10] lead off, and the round travels through the strings and winds. Toward the end of the passage, the strings withdraw entirely, leaving an ensemble of winds, initially flutes and oboe, then cor anglais [154 6:00], with bassoon and clarinets entering before the strings return [155 6:50]. As the orchestral texture increases, the three-note phrase with which the movement began becomes ever more insistent. On brass fanfare and timpani [158 7:19], the music gains in urgency and volume, culminating in whirlwinds of notes and huge orchestral chords [168 9:14]. But the music is not leading, as it might have, to a Fifth Symphony-style triumphal close.
Instead, the orchestra withdraws [173 10:29], leaving a lone bass clarinet on a spare string ground [174 10:52]. In this passage, I hear a faded echo of the Invasion theme in the strings [175 11:10]. A violin joins the bass clarinet, and the music shifts into a lithesome waltz [176 11:40] in which a cello’s tender melody [176 11:45] is sneered at by bassoons [177 12:04]. A bassoon offers its reedy voice to the movement’s three-note phrase [177 12:16], joined by delicate accompaniment from xylophone, clarinet, and flute. On gentle strings, the bassoon gives way to a lone piccolo’s delicate melodic fragment [178 13:09]. The strings sing softly on, a flute slips in, and a violin floats upward [180 13:54]. The other violins join and stay aloft on a single chord. The violas pluck out the three-note phrase [180 14:16], and flutes enter tenderly on single notes. The violas join the violins, and the cellos come to rest in harmony with the other strings [181 15:24]. The contrabasses repeat the three-note phrase three times, the third at half the pace [181 15:29]. The strings die away, and the symphony ends.
To listen to the Eighth Symphony on Spotify, click here.
In both cases, the conductor is Mstislav Rostropovich. On the Spotify playlist, Rostropovich conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in the recording to which I listened to prepare the post. For David Nice’s complete review of that recording (Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 on the LSO Live label, with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting), click here. From the review:
The 16-year-old Rostropovich joined Shostakovich’s composition class at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1943, just before the composer completed his most relentless symphonic tragedy, the Eighth. Rostropovich has since conducted the Eighth many times, and recorded it once before with this orchestra; yet even he must have been amazed and moved by the playing of the LSO at those extraordinary concerts of November 2004.
For previous posts on the Shostakovich Symphonies, click on the following links: Introduction; First Symphony; Second and Third Symphonies; Fourth Symphony; Fifth Symphony; Sixth and Seventh Symphonies
Credits: Quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text, at the page or location shown in brackets. The sources for images used in the post are at the following links: First and second images of Shostakovich, Album cover. The remaining photographs are mine.