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Symphony No.8 in C Minor Op.65

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

'Epic Sweep and Tragic Power'

In the summer of 1941 the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union and within a few months were at the gates of Leningrad (St Petersburg). For a time Shostakovich remained in the city, where he began work on the Seventh Symphony, but he was eventually evacuated to Kyuibeshev, where the symphony was completed. The Eighth Symphony occupied him during the summer of 1943, when he had reurned to Moscow. The tide of the war had turned the battle of Stalingrad had been won and Kiev and Smolensk had been recaptured. (The work briefly bore the subtitle 'Stalingrad' though , according to Volkov, this never had the composer's imprimatur.) The atmosphere of bitter pessimism that pervades it earned it the opprobrium of the regime. Its anguish and suffering were far removed from the kind of patriotic symphony they required. Its power did not go unrecognised elsewhere: Koussevitzky premiered it in Boston and went so far as to call the first movement music 'which by the power of its human emotion surpasses everything else created in our time.'

Like two other wartime works, the Piano Quintet and the Ninth Symphony and the post-war Third String Quartet, the Eighth adopts a five-movement scheme, the last three beinglined together. It offers another instance of Shostakovich's practice of beginning withan Adagio, spacious in design, and combining the inward-looking function of the slow movement with the structural outlay of a sonata movement. The movement is both long (it runs for some 25 minutes) and unremitting in its sheer intensity of feeling. It opens with a pair of ideas on the strings, first a vehement dotted rhythm on lower strings which gradually subsides to make way for a serene theme on the violins, not unlike the one that opens the Fifth Symphony but much darker in feeling and more anguished. This main idea is brutalise partly in canon in the violent middle section. Along with the opening movement of the Tenth, the Adagio is Shostakovich at his most powerful.

The balance is restored by two quick movements; the first, an Allegretto in D flat shows something of his penchant for the grotesque, while its successor, an Allegro in E minor, is dominated by a pitiless toccata-like motoric rhythm. This ostinato is broken only by a briliant episode for trumpet (in F sharp) before we are returned to the toccata fugure and atrmendous climax brings us to the Passacaglia that comprises the next movement. This form held some considerable fascination for him in the 1940s as witness the Piano Trio, Op. 67, composed immediately in the wake of the symphony and the slightly later Violin Concerto No. 1. But this C sharp minor movement is one of his most poignant and most searching. It seems to me to evoke the devastation of a war-torn city or the desolate wastes of a battle field. But the battle ground is spiritual: these symphonies (Shostakovich told Soloman Volkov) from the Fourth onward are as much about the ravages inflicted on Russia before the war as they are about the war itself. The theme recurs about a dozen times over which various soloists ruminate. The C major finale into which it leads is a sonata movement whicheventually establishes a ing of peace, even if it seems as much the peace of exhaustion and resignation as of real tranquillity.

Robert Layton




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