April is the cruelest month. In the warmth of a Russian summer, not unlike how St. Louis feels today, Dmitry Shostakovich began what was to become his Eighth Symphony. This was to be a patriotic symphony, celebrating a turn in World War II as Soviet forces began to rout the German army and send it into a panicked retreat.
The Eighth also followed the international success of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, “Leningrad,” in 1942. When the Seventh was premiered in Leningrad, Russian artillery fired upon German forces near the city to ensure silence during the performance. A rag-tag orchestra played the vigorous work, although the musicians were weak from hunger as a result of the German siege. The “Leningrad” Symphony became a symbol of Russian resilience and Shostakovich was acclaimed world wide. An illustration of the composer, dressed in a fireman’s helmet, appeared on the cover of Time.
His Eighth, then, would be a “Victory” Symphony. Shostakovich set to work in the summer of 1943, made a few introductory attempts, and stopped.
Who would write for the millions dead? The dead beneath the Russian soil, and so many more dead that had not been buried. What from their silence could be made into music? Just as spring comes with the celebration of resurrection, of “lilacs out of the dead land,” as T. S. Eliot wrote it, victory comes out of the struggles of those who fell and did not rise again.
Shostakovich wrote his Eighth Symphony for those who died and those who survived. A fierce beauty will be heard at Powell Hall when the St. Louis Symphony performs it April 10-11.