Two war symphonies

It’s funny how coincidence can cause you to compare two pieces that you probably never would have seen a link between otherwise. In the course of the past week I was working on the Fifth Symphony by Vaughan Williams and went to a concert that included Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. I cannot have imagined making a comparison between these two works, such vastly different worlds did I see them coming from. Yet beyond some notable similarities in texture and form (the passacaglia fourth movement of each symphony, for example) it was hard not to be intrigued by the fact that both works were premiered in 1943. Churchill had famously described late 1942 as “the end of the beginning” of the Second World War. His point was to temper celebrations of recent victories with a warning that there would be a lot more hardship for the nations at war in the coming years. Casualty reports and general privation would have been part of daily life for those people who would comprise the audiences at the premiere of each of these two symphonies in London and Moscow, and both composers were keenly aware of the significance a symphony premiered at the height of such a conflict held to speak to the national mood that year. In the gestation of each work that we see two different paths towards a similar sentiment expressed in the conclusion of each work.

Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony is rooted in his planned musical response to Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that had occupied his attentions since 1906 (coincidentally the year of Shostakovich’s birth). By 1938 Vaughan Williams seems to have abandoned hope of finishing his operatic treatment of Bunyan, and set about using some of this musical material as the basis for the Fifth Symphony. This might explain the Fifth’s apparent volte-face in symphonic style from the angular, severe tones of the Fourth Symphony (1935) back to the more serene quality of the Pastoral (Third) Symphony (1922). However, whilst the Fourth Symphony – evocative as it is of a world being consumed by the forces of totalitarianism – might seem to present a better compositional voice for a world at war, it is the Pastoral Symphony that is the true wartime symphony, deeply connected as it is with Vaughan Williams’ service on the Western Front during the First World War. Composing this piece broke Vaughan Williams’ creative dry spell following a return to civilian life in 1919, and was written alongside The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains; a scene from The Pilgrim’s Progress where the Pilgrim is ceremonially anointed ahead of his crossing the River of Death on route to the Celestial City.

I was struck by the idea that Vaughan Williams’ Fifth is not, then, a retreat to an older musical language per se, but rather the composer using a dialect derived from his experience in “the war to end all wars” from which he crafts a surprisingly sanguine, even radiant response to the contemporary experience of war in 1943. In contrast, Shostakovich’s Eight Symphony was written in a frenzied period of a little over two months in the summer of 1943 when, as he noted in an interview: “my elevated creative state…could not help but be influenced by the joyful news connected with the victories of the Red Army.” This work is not simply a bombastic paean to victory though. In the same interview he suggests that the piece: “contains many inner conflicts, both tragic and dramatic. But, on the whole, it is an optimistic, life-affirming work.” I find the Eighth a far more emotionally genuine work than the rambunctious Seventh Symphony, which to me gives a certain film-like gloss to the experience of war. In this war symphony we see the possibility of final victory – hardly surprising given the decisive battles of 1943 – presented in a voice that seems to tell of the struggle and sacrifice necessary to achieve this. It has an optimistic conclusion, but one celebrated not with shouts of joy but with sighs of relief.

Vaughan Williams – thirty-four years Shostakovich’s senior and a veteran of another global war – seems stoical in his response to conflict: war and death might be seen as further trials that the Pilgrim must face on the journey to the Celestial City, but the transcendental ending of the Fifth seems to suggest that this goal is not in doubt. The journey through Shostakovich’s Eighth is more tumultuous, but the radiant splendour of the final C major string chord chimes a similarly optimistic note. In Shostakovich’s description of the symphony: “Everything that is dark and gloomy will rot away, vanish, and the beautiful will triumph.” Since both composers produced music for propaganda films during the war we have a clear touchstone for their bombastic, victorious musical language. I find it compelling that in the large public statement of a symphony both seem to find a private space for a cautiously optimistic view of a future beyond the present struggles of war. I wondered if, by 1943, both composers reflected the feeling that “the beginning of the end” might have been on the horizon.