Sunday, December 9, 2012

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

By April of 1943, Shostakovich and his family had set up residence in Moscow where he accepted a teaching post at the Conservatory. Recall that in October 1941 they had been evacuated from Leningrad, under siege by the Nazis. Most of the intervening time had been spent in Kuybïshev (now called Samara) located far to the east on the banks of the Volga. In Ivanovo, near Moscow, a composer's retreat had been set up on the grounds of a former poultry farm. Here Shostakovich, working in a converted henhouse, in a little over two months composed his Symphony No. 8.

This is a large symphony, at over an hour, the longest after the 7th Symphony. There are five movements:

  1. Adagio - Allegro non troppo
  2. Allegretto
  3. Allegro non troppo -
  4. Largo -
  5. Allegretto
The first movement is the longest, at around 25 minutes and begins with a tense, dramatic theme somewhat reminiscent of the 5th Symphony:

Click to enlarge

Some things to note: the first interval we hear is the second from C to B flat. This interval, on different pitches, ties together the whole symphony. Notice that the rhythm is not only double-dotted, but the short note is also played staccato which adds considerable tension. The violins enter a fifth above, and invert the cello theme. The long opening movement, which is a masterful development of this opening theme, is followed by two scherzos, or marches. The second of these, the third movement, is one of my favorite Shostakovich movements for its simplicity and extreme contrasts. Here is the opening theme over which the winds and brass will throw sustained chords, again, with a very clipped upbeat as we saw in the double-dotted rhythm of the first movement theme.

Click to enlarge

This is a long and, some might find, grueling symphony to listen to, but I think it is worth your time. It is not performed as often as most of the other symphonies. The 7th Symphony had raised expectations very high and some of the early critical reception was rather chilly. Other than Yevgeny Mravinsky, who conducted the premiere, the symphony did not find many advocates and was even banned for several years after the Zhdanov decree of 1948, a further attempt to ideologically control aesthetics.

I encourage you to listen to the symphony with an open mind and just try and hear what is going on. You will find most commentaries on the symphony talk about the political context and whether or not Shostakovich was a secret dissident. I don't think this is all that productive and gets in the way of the music. Let's just listen to the music! Here is a complete performance conducted by Mravinsky:

No comments: