Dmitry Shostakovich

Symphony No. 8 in C minor ("Stalingrad"), Op. 65

    Description by Robert Cummings

    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.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Adagio - Allegro non troppo - Adagio
    2. Allegretto
    3. Allegro non troppo
    4. Largo
    5. Allegretto

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 LSO Live LSO 0822
    2018 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 17019
    2017 Deutsche Grammophon 4797477
    2017 SWR Music SWR 19037CD
    2016 Melodiya MELCD 1002431
    2016 ABC Classics
    2016 ABC Classics 4814565
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4795201
    2015 Praga / Praga Digitals DSD 350120
    2015 Naxos 8501111
    2014 Testament SBT2 1500
    2014 Alto / Musical Concepts MCSCD 6004
    2013 Urania WS 121276
    2013 LPO LPO 0069
    2013 Mariinsky MAR 0525
    2012 Decca / Ooo Universal
    2011 Melodiya 1000773
    2011 Alto ALC 1150
    2011 Entertainment Group 1210
    2011 Warner Classics 256464177
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon
    2010 Naxos 8572392
    2010 Decca
    2010 Decca
    2009 Deutsche Grammophon 4778114
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099926796
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Warner Classics
    2008 Melodiya 1001065
    2008 Artek 44-2
    2008 Warner Classics
    2008 EMI Classics 090242A
    2008 EMI Classics 5090252
    2007 Brilliant Classics 8128
    2007 Apex
    2007 Decca
    2007 Decca 475 8748DC12
    2006 Supraphon 38902
    2006 Edel Classics 2342
    2006 Berlin Classics 0017932
    2006 Arts Music 47850
    2006 Rca Red Seal 76238
    2006 PentaTone Classics PTC5186084
    2006 MDG 9371204
    2006 BBC Legends / BBC Music 41892
    2006 Regis Records 1250
    2006 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 0946365300
    2006 Decca 475 7413DC11
    2005 Philips / Universal/Philips 4708412
    2005 MDG 3371204
    2005 BIS 1483
    2005 LSO Live 527
    2005 LSO LSO 0060
    2005 Angelok 1 9932
    2005 Capriccio Records 71029
    2004 Melodiya 770
    2004 Brilliant Classics 6324
    2004 Avie 43
    2002 Brilliant 6275
    2002 EMI Music Distribution 67807
    2001 Capriccio Records 71013
    2001 EMI Classics 7243557176
    2001 EMI Classics
    2001 Relief CR 991056
    2001 Naxos 8 501102
    2000 Melodiya 72915
    2000 Decca 467465
    1999 BBC Legends 40022
    1998 Melodiya 7432153457
    1998 Teldec 17046
    1997 Delos 3204
    1996 Melodiya 29459
    1996 Berlin Classics 0092172
    1996 Melodiya 7432129406
    1996 Philips 000582102
    1996 Collins Records 12712
    1995 Deutsche Grammophon 437819
    1995 London 444 430-2LC11
    1994 Denon Records 78910
    1994 Naxos 506003
    1994 Telarc Distribution 80291
    1994 Naxos 550628
    1994 London 436 763-2DH
    1993 Berlin Classics 0020642
    1993 Decca 425071
    1993 Philips 432090
    1993 Praga 250040
    1992 Teldec 74719
    1992 Chandos 8757
    Russian Revelation 10061
    Brilliant 8128/5
    Brilliant 6275-5
    Decca 452675
    Guild 2322
    Arts Music 47704
    Brilliant Classics 8635/92
    EMI Music Distribution 65521
    As Disc 538
    RCA 60145
    Russian Disc 10917
    Melodiya 1000240
    Ondine 775
    London 411616
    Moscow Studio Archives 19062