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The Symphony No. 8 in C minor (Opus 65) by Dmitri Shostakovich was written in the summer of 1943, and first performed on November 4 of that year by the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky, to whom the work is dedicated.
The symphony does not appear on concert programs very often, yet many recent scholars have ranked it among the composer’s finest scores. Although some have argued that the work falls within the tradition of other C minor “tragedy to triumph” symphonies, such as Beethoven‘s Fifth, Brahms‘ First, Bruckner‘s Eighth, and Mahler‘s Second, there is considerable disagreement over the level of optimism present in the final pages. Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman called this symphony “his most tragic work”. The work, like many of his symphonies, breaks some of the standard conventions of symphonic form and structure. Shostakovich clearly references themes, rhythms and harmonies from his previous symphonies, most notably his Fifth Symphony and his Seventh Symphony.
- 0:00 Adagio – Allegro non troppo
- 27:22 Allegretto
- 34:03 Allegro non troppo –
- 40:46 Largo –
- 50:52 Allegretto
However, the motif is immediately replaced by the two subjects of this sonata form movement, both lyrical in character. In the development section, the second subject is brutalised before militaristic marches come to dominate. The recapitulation sees a dissonant version of the fate motif displaced by a cor anglais solo which meanders towards a restatement of the second subject.
The composer described the short second movement allegretto as “a march with elements of a scherzo“; the third movement (conventionally described as a toccata) is again short, driven onwards by motor rhythms:
This movement has been interpreted as a depiction of battle, or (by Kurt Sanderling) as “the crushing of the individual” by the Soviet system. It is linked to the penultimate movement, a passacaglia, which in turn (as in Beethoven’s fifth) leads directly into the C major finale, around 15 minutes in length. However, in contrast to Beethoven’s exuberant conclusion, Shostakovich provides a pastoral rondo in which solo woodwinds again dominate. The movement begins with a passage for solo bassoon, and ends quietly with both pizzicato and sustaining strings; for some additional color, a solo flute joins in for the last note of the motive, at the very bottom of its range. The pizzicato material is an inverted version of the symphony’s opening fate motif, and is connected by Haas to a similar passage for soprano voice in the fifth movement of Mahler‘s Second. Here, however, there is no resurrection: “The hero who announced himself using the voices of cor anglais and bassoon has not clearly triumphed, merely survived”.
The weight of the first and final movements of the symphony is centered on simultaneous crescendos of the snare and bass drums, while trumpets call to the pinnacle which is overlaid by woodwind trills.
A second interval is used as a motif throughout the symphony: C B-flat C in the opening motif of the first movement, D-flat C D-flat in the theme of the second movement, E F E in the third movement (here separated by an octave), and C D C in the last movement.