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The Halle return with conductor Sir Mark Elder

Posted on 7 March 2018

World-renowned Manchester symphony orchestra The Hallé return to Sage Gateshead with conductor Sir Mark Elder on Friday 16 March.

Book tickets online here

The programme features Elgar’s masterful orchestration of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue, Bach’s first ‘piano’ concerto and one of Shostakovich’s finest works, his Symphony No.8. Here, Richard C Yates shares his programme note for the remarkable piece.

Programme note

Dmitri Shostakovich 1906-1975

Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65
Adagio – Allegretto – Allegro non troppo – Largo – Allegretto

Ever since the young composer provoked the Great Leader’s outrage with his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District Joseph Stalin had kept his beady eye on Dmitri Shostakovich.

The opera had been playing to packed houses in Leningrad since 1934, but Stalin walked out of a 1936 Moscow performance in disgust and an unsigned Pravda article followed in his wake, headed ‘Muddle Instead of Music’, accusing Shostakovich of importing foreign musical styles, and ominously warning him: ‘This is a game … that may end very badly.’

Lady Macbeth was promptly banned in the Soviet Union for the next 30 years.

Shostakovich kept his head down at this point, but several of his fellow Russian composers responded vigorously in their readiness to condemn their colleague.

Wisely, in that same year, Shostakovich withdrew his sprawling modernist Symphony No.4 at rehearsal stage and in 1937 partially reinstated himself in the Kremlin’s eyes through his Symphony No.5, bearing the inscription ‘the creative reply of a Soviet artist to just criticism’.

The Symphony No.7 of 1941 brought Shostakovich to international attention. As a symbol of Soviet heroism and resolve, composed in part during the siege of Leningrad, it was a morale-booster that came at a very convenient time for Stalin in his quest for prestige amongst wartime allies.

Two years later, a turning point in the conflict came with the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad. This victory for the Red Army, despite massive losses on both sides, would strengthen Stalin’s status and raise patriotic expectations of a triumphant symphony from Shostakovich.

When the Eighth was first performed in Moscow by the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Evgeny Mravinsky in November 1943, its unexpected mix of violent dissonance and introspective melancholy met with some puzzlement.

In one memoir Shostakovich tried to explain his predicament: ‘When the Eighth was performed it was openly declared counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet. They said: “Why did Shostakovich write an optimistic symphony at the beginning of the war and a tragic one now? At the beginning of the war we were retreating and now we’re attacking, destroying the Fascists. And Shostakovich is acting tragic – that means he’s on the side of the Fascists”.’

Shostakovich stated that in the Eighth ‘there was an attempt to express the emotional experience of the people, to reflect the terrible tragedy of war’. The Kremlin merely noted that it did not celebrate the Soviet victory and the symphony was officially censured for its ‘unrelieved gloom’.

There could have been a chance for Shostakovich to make amends through his next symphony in November 1945 to commemorate the war victory – instead Symphony No.9 turned out to be a short and quirky five-movement exercise involving lightweight and irony-laced music that seemed to disparage the defeat of the Nazi foe. And, risking his neck, Shostakovich did not include the customary dedication to Joseph Stalin!

What arguably saved Shostakovich from the firing squad was his huge popularity in the West, a reputation the Soviet Union valued for its propaganda potential.

His American supporters clamoured for the Leningrad Symphony’s successor – and, despite the scorn poured on the Eighth Symphony, the Kremlin was happy to accept $10,000 from CBS for the rights to the first American broadcast of the symphony in April 1944. London followed suit three months later with a BBC Orchestra studio broadcast conducted by Henry Wood that reached a world audience.

Shostakovich was gratified that his music was being appreciated beyond the USSR, but the praise heaped upon him after the Seventh and its successor began to frighten him. He made it known to friends that the pair of symphonies would serve as his Requiem – at one point admitting: ‘Every report of the success of the Seventh or Eighth made me ill. A new success meant a new coffin nail’.

The fate of the symphony at home was less secure. As late as 1948 Uncle Joe unleashed his attack-dog, Culture Minister Andrei Zhdanov, who denounced the Eighth as ‘repulsive and ultra-individualist,’ comparing such music to ‘a piercing road drill’ and ‘a musical gas chamber of the sort the Gestapo used’.

Copies of the symphony’s score were subsequently pulped, recordings were destroyed and performances were banned for the next eight years. A few months later Shostakovich was sacked from his professorships at the Moscow and Leningrad conservatories.

Shostakovich wrote the Eighth Symphony quite quickly during the summer of 1943. Its first movement is an extensive Adagio. At almost half an hour, it is longer than the next three movements combined. In structure it resembles the Moderato first movement of his popular Symphony No.5, but here despondent introspection, rather than positive aspiration, is the prevailing mood.

The opening dramatic statement on low strings is regarded as the symphony’s fate motif, upon which the violins trace a mournful contemplation. Moments of anxiety and uncertainty begin to intrude on their discourse and the pace steadily accelerates as the winds enter. They herald a grotesque march that, bolstered by menacing drum rolls, begins to brutalise the themes. In the wrenching, war-machine fusillades that follow, woodwinds shriek, brass roar and drums thunder relentlessly. Eventually there’s a sudden silence, broken by an elegiac song from the cor anglais. Fragments of the aggressive fanfare are heard again but they fail to spur any response from the exhausted multitude. Instead, the cellos and basses gently revive the fate motif before the movement subsides into a hesitant calm.

The manic mood quickly returns in the Allegretto second movement, a march that in its lighter moments seems to want to frolic to the tune of piccolos. Critic Paul Serotsky has pertinently described this as ‘an extremely harsh danse macabre, with a hint of the puppet, outwardly conforming while inwardly screaming.’

The third movement, Allegro non troppo, is a juddering mechanistic march with screeching winds and driving string phrases relentlessly rising and falling. There is a bizarre ‘posthorn galop’ sequence at its centre, but the march churns onwards, recruiting percussion and blaring brass for its final bars – before gently sliding into the Largo slow movement.

This passacaglia is the bleak introspection of a soul lost in a dark, formless world where little is perceived and nothing is promised, and where chilling threads of a song on high woodwind against slowly meandering strings offer few directions or expectations of a destination.

A sudden turn into the C major key and a solo spot for the bassoon appears to be a signpost within this forlorn soundscape, and proves to be the Allegretto concluding movement of the symphony. This last gesture is a pastoral rondo which includes various dance elements and folk tunes. There is still no joy or triumph in this release from darkness into light, however. There are reminders here in the roll of drums that Shostakovich was acknowledging the horrific toll on lives through the war and Stalin’s purges of his own people. The last bars offer some serenity – especially through the pizzicato figure for strings, which is an inversion of the opening fate theme – but, alas, hope for a better future is not on this symphony’s horizon.

Circumstances would change in the Soviet Union as peacetime surrendered to the Cold War, but Shostakovich knew Stalin was still watching, ever calculating. The ‘game’ could still ‘end very badly’.

One can only imagine the fearful composer’s shock when, in February 1949, he received a home phone call from the Great Leader himself ‘inviting’ Shostakovich to travel to New York to attend the Cultural & Scientific Conference for World Peace the following month as a leading representative of Soviet artistic achievement – an offer, of course, he could never have refused.

© Richard C Yates

Footnotes:

banned – Stalin had to be dead for three years before the Eighth Symphony was reintroduced to Russian audiences through a Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra performance in October 1956 conducted by Samuil Samosud.

inscription –This seemingly penitential declaration did not come from the composer’s pen. It was coined by an unnamed critic and attached to the score at a later date. However, Shostakovich tactfully, if not sincerely, made it known that this statement met with his approval.

passacaglia – Originally a three-beats-to-the-bar dance in which a theme, stretching over a number of bars, is repeated regularly.