Just as his countryman Prokofiev wrote a trilogy of so-called War Sonatas for piano, one might say that Shostakovich composed a trio of war symphonies, of which this work is the second and surely the greatest. It was preceded by the "Leningrad" symphony, a programmatic composition whose artistically dubious Bolero-like first movement buildup, now thought by some to signify the banality of evil, was originally said to represent the heroism of those defending Leningrad against the Nazi invaders. The Symphony No. 8 is surrounded by no such controversy, and is a far more profound work. Like its predecessor, it exudes an atmosphere of war and struggle, of loss and hope. But here pain and destruction become the dominant issues, replacing the Seventh's admirable but more naïve themes of heroism and triumph.
The Eighth came at a time when Soviet censors were completely occupied with the war. Shostakovich had come under attack in January 1936, for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and thereafter had to modify his expressive language, even though he was hardly in the vanguard of modernism. Now the situation was changed: Prokofiev got away with writing his Piano Sonata No. 7, which even received a Stalin prize despite a first movement that flirted with atonality and a finale rife with dissonance. Thus Shostakovich was free to write a darker, deeper, more challenging work. But its tragic character was mainly a by-product of the war and of the composer's own often naturally pessimistic musical persona.
The massive first-movement Adagio is nearly as long as the other four combined. Its music is dark and tense throughout, consisting of an introductory theme and two long-breathed, dark melodies that form the main and secondary subjects. These two explode in the catastrophic development section, climaxed by a brutal fugal march based on the first theme. A three-note motif that appears in different guises (C-B flat-C, C-D-C, or B-C-B) serves as a motto throughout symphony and launches both of the first movement's main themes. After the explosive development section, the music seems to go into a tailspin for the remainder of the movement.
The ensuing Allegretto seems at times to suggest joviality, but quickly undercuts that feeling with an ironic twist or a turn toward desperation. The driving, neurotic Allegro non troppo that follows offers a theme that races breathlessly along, propelled, it seems, by bombs dropping in the distance. After a somewhat bombastic middle section, the theme returns and explodes in a percussive outburst, after which the Largo passacaglia begins without pause. The theme here, gloomy and profound and related to the first movement's second theme, repeats a dozen times, imparting a mood throughout of loss, if not of despair.
The finale begins with the three-note motif. While there are suggestions of relief from the oppressive strife and tragedy, the music is mostly devoid of strong emotions, as if to express a sense of numbness due to the war's terrors. The music suddenly erupts near the end of this 15-minute panel, however, with huge sustained chords that recall the catastrophic moments from the earlier movements. The three-note motif is heard repeatedly in the quiet that follows, and the symphony ends in a mood of resignation and drained emotions.
The Eighth Symphony was premiered on November 4, 1943, and Shostakovich and the work's conductor, Evgeny Mravinsky, received a half-hour ovation. Five years later, however, the composer was chastised for writing the symphony by Zhdanov and the party censors.