Gagged: The Silent Eloquence of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony

When Russian army troops entered Ukraine in the spring of 2022, Russian art also found itself caught up in the turmoil. However, a clear position soon emerged: a total ban would be tantamount to handing Russia's cultural heritage over to Putin's propaganda machine, which would inevitably appropriate it and misuse it to serve its own interests. The controversial concerts given by Valery Gergiev, the government's resident conductor, in South Ossetia and Palmyra once again highlighted the political potential of classical music. 

Political events undoubtedly influence our perception of Russian music. Yet works such as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 - both on the Belgian National Orchestra's calendar for the 2023/2024 season - are largely unaffected by the turmoil. Indeed, they do not lead to explicit associations with nationalism, dictatorship or propaganda. On the other hand, Dmitri Shostakovich's link between music and politics is more relevant than ever. The way in which his music is perceived constantly oscillates between two extremes, at times displaying an eminently explicit propaganda message, and at other times offering the delightful possibility of unmasking, behind the 'official' programmes, a dissident whose every note is in fact a cry, a hidden charge against the Soviet dictatorship. Testimony (1979), Shostakovich's posthumous memoirs "dictated to and written by" Solomon Volkov, played a crucial role in this perception. From the outset, the book provoked a heated debate. Volkov's Shostakovich, both misunderstood hero of the resistance and bitter victim, was alternately denounced and validated as fundamentally true to life by musicologists, relatives and heirs of the composer. 

The wrong work at the wrong time

The fact that, throughout his life, Shostakovich was often both co-opted and severely condemned by the party apparatus tells us even more about the duality of the reception of his work. This tension finds its locus classicus in the Russian's three "war symphonies". Unlike Symphony No. 7, which was enthusiastically hailed as an expression of heroic combat and the certainty of winning the "Great Patriotic War" against Nazism, the darker, more introverted Eighth was to displease the regime. With this symphony, Shostakovich wanted, as he himself put it, to recreate "the inner world of the human being, anguish, suffering, courage and joy, feelings deafened by the gigantic hammer of war". Psychic states that have acquired a particular clarity, illuminated by the inferno of war". When this symphony was premiered in November 1943, the chances of success had definitely changed sides. Russian victory was only a matter of time. Rather than a pessimistic tragedy, the authorities now expected an optimistic anticipation of imminent triumph. 

Shostakovich's Eighth failed masterfully to meet these tacit criteria. The Soviet monks discovered music a world away from the galvanising invasion march of Symphony No. 7, with no triumphant climax. After an emotionally exhausting journey punctuated by incendiary anger, sardonic vulgarity and hopeless despair, Symphony No. 8 ends in a kind of emotional no-man's-land: neither meaningless triumph nor profound tragedy, just resignation. 

While the reception of the Eighth had been glacial, the vice was to tighten around the composer even more in the following years. In 1944, the symphony was labelled a "work not recommended". Four years later, Andrej Zjdanov, Stalin's right-hand man, launched a frontal attack: Symphony No. 8 was a scandalous example of elitist "formalism" that had to be definitively eradicated from Russian music. Shostakovich thus found himself officially condemned for a second time. He was forced to admit, in a humiliating statement, that he "spoke a language foreign to the Russian people". 

The aggressive reaction of party ideologues to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 provides solid arguments for those who wish to see the composer as a dissident, as Volkov did, especially as the music itself also lends itself to such an interpretation. No quantum leap in the reading of this symphony is necessary to hear, in its sometimes searing intensity, the repression exercised by a totalitarian regime. In this respect, however, it is at least as relevant to ask ourselves why we seem to hold so dear to the Western world's reassuring image of Shostakovich as a victim of and fighter against stifling repression.

Art versus straitjacket

It's hardly surprising that a work of art acquires different, and sometimes very contrasting, levels of meaning over the course of its reception. Trying to fathom Shostakovich's soul, however, is a challenge that goes beyond purely academic investigation. In a totalitarian state like the Soviet Union, where it was forbidden to express yourself and where an innocent gesture was enough to stigmatise you, art took on a special position. Fundamentally ambiguous and elusive, art never allows itself to be completely encased in an ideological straitjacket. "Forget controversy: we knew what it meant", said one of Shostakovich's contemporaries about his allegedly propagandist Symphony No. 11: in a country where speech is muzzled, it is the arts that express themselves. As a sign of protest, they are able to create a tacit feeling of solidarity against which the authorities are powerless. Their only weapon - censorship - reflects their own vulnerability. At a time when Russia seems once again to be transforming itself into a regime of terror, art is once again becoming a political weapon. It is once again the banner of what cannot be said or expressed aloud.

In Western Europe, life under a dictatorship seems more and more like a distant memory, rather than a lived experience. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 opens a window on a situation that is still excruciatingly real for millions of people today. Far from the allegories of war, the Russian's work is even more the echo of a man trapped in a traumatic era - at once highly personal and universal.


By Elias Van Dyck

Info & tickets - concert 6/10


Info & tickets - concert 8/10