The Life and Times of Dmitri Shostakovich: A Polarizing Genius
A pivotal figure in the musical landscape of Soviet Russia, Dmitri Shostakovich’s work oscillated between being the epitome of the state’s music and political denouncement. He was the one composer who survived and represented the ambiguities of arguably 20th century’s most brutal political experiment, the entity known as the Soviet Union.
The second child of Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich and Sofia Kokaoulina, a pianist, he was born on September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg, Russia as Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich. He started learning piano at a private school in St. Petersburg while his initial piano lessons began under the tutelage of his mother at the age of a 9.
Between 1919-1925, he continued studying piano and composition at the St. Petersburg (Leningrad) Conservatory. He created his first “Classical” symphony there, presenting it as his graduation piece. However, he was greatly at odds with the preferred compositional style imposed at the school, with his teachers influencing him to work on classic Russian styles, namely Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Risky-Korsakov and Borodin. Shostakovich himself preferred the path of Stravinsky and Prokofiev.
His music can be best described as part satirical, part classical as well as grotesque, with his works were heavily influenced by the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Modest Mussorgsky.
His first symphony gained critical acclaim, given his comparatively young age at the time of writing. It premiered in 1926, kicking off his exceptional career. It quickly placed him at the forefront of contemporary young Soviet composers. However, his next 2 symphonies were not so popular, especially as they oozed a more experimental harmonic essence. In 1927, he was awarded an "honorable diploma" at the 1st International Piano Competition held at Warsaw.
He was fortunate enough to attract the interests of some of the most gifted performers of his era - Mstislav Rostropovich, David Oistrakh and Yevgeny Mravinsky the most notable among them. Ardent champions of his music, they collaborated with him to create more musical sensations.
Denouncement and Critical Reception
His first opera, “The Nose” endured a negative reception. It was closely followed by the most important tipping point of his career in 1934 when he wrote his second opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” (aka Katerina Izmailova). Shostakovich collaborated with Aleksei Dikij for this musical phenomenon, with over 100 performances in Moscow and Leningrad, a highlight of his directing career. The composition was portrayed as a socialist success, an embodiment of Socialist realism.
However, in 1936, it attracted the ire of Joseph Stalin and the party leadership at a performance due to the loud noises being emitted from brass and percussion. This resulted in heavy criticism in the state-run newspaper Pravda via the article “Muddle Instead of Music,” accusing it of intellectualism and formalism. This denouncement was subsequently followed by a state influenced voluntary withdrawal of the “Fourth Symphony.”
Shostakovich made a return to the good books of the state with his fifth symphony in 1937. This conservative and tuneful piece was critically acclaimed. However, it can be argued whether he simply started learning how to hide his true intent.
The Legend of Leningrad
1941 saw the invasion of Nazi Germany and its allies, forcing Leningrad (St. Petersburg) into a siege. Shostakovich survived the first few months of bombardment. Joining the "night watch" patrol, he actively participated in firefighting and neutralizing incendiary bombs. During the rare quiet moments, he was back to his piano composing. He was finally evacuated from the besieged city at the end of 1941.
His legendary seventh "Leningrad" Symphony was composed during the Nazi aerial and artillery attacks. This masterpiece truly helped lift the spirits of the citizens of St. Petersburg in such troubled times, providing him national and international recognition.
On August 9, 1942, the Seventh Symphony was premiered in Leningrad by Karl Eliasberg, who specially created an orchestra out of survivors in the city. This fabled performance was broadcasted live from the city radio hall, where all loudspeakers delivered the symphony throughout the city. This marked an epic move of psychological warfare, with the Russian forces bombarding German artillery positions in advance to ensure their silence during the performance. The Nazis were left with no choice but to face the music. Shostakovich’s symphony brought a much-needed catharsis to the survivors, who rapturously applauded Eliasberg and his orchestra.
The news spread all over the world, portraying the failure of Hitler’s invasion of Leningrad, with Shostakovich himself forwarding his words of gratitude to the performers through a telegram.
His Best Works
Cello Concerto No.1
Shostakovich's First Concerto was written for Rostropovich. It displayed distortions of his musical motto 'D-S-C-H' (which can be musically translated as 'D-E flat-C-B')
Piano Trumpet and Strings (Piano Concerto No.1)
The composer has concocted everything into a sophisticated melting pot; from jazz, music hall to vaudeville. He has also offered references towards Mahler and Beethoven, with the knockabout finale distinctly resembling 1920s Milhaud!
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
The tragic tale of Katarina Ismailova, who falls for Sergei, strangles her husband, poisons her father-in-law and finally murders Sergei's new girlfriend before immersing herself in a river!
Symphony No.7, 'Leningrad'
A masterpiece dedicated to the city of St. Petersburg, its remorseless energy offers a stunning impact with the first movement’s ‘invasion’ theme.
String Quartet No.8
His most famous work, this piece narrates his lifelong struggle with the Soviet government, exuding a chilling and unsettling theme.
String Quartet No.10
Shostakovich composed this piece in just 10 days at an Armenian retreat, where he delved further into the sense of despair, oppression, and hopelessness.
Violin Concerto No.1
His first violin piece opens with a nail-biting cynicism, swiftly moving into an icy Passacaglia and whiplash Scherzo with a finale oozing of pulverizing intensity.
His last and most enigmatic symphony is littered with various musical quotations – a combination of his own work, Rossini's William Tell, Wagner, and Mahler.
After the second World War, Shostakovich gained further recognition worldwide. He started receiving several invitations to participate in cultural events and music festivals around the globe. He won the International Peace Prize in 1954 and was awarded the State Prize 5 times between 1941 to 1952. He was also chosen as the People's Artist of the USSR during this period. He served as the secretary of the Union of Composers of USSR between 1957-1975. He promoted various talented musicians, namely Boris Tishchenko, Karen Khachaturyan, Georgi Sviridov and Andrei Petrov.
He collaborated with Evgeniy Evtushenko on a setting of poems by Yevtushenko, creating the famous Symphony No. 13 "Babi Yar.” His best-known film scores include Grigoriy Kozintsev's acclaimed film Hamlet (1964) and 'Suite from The Gadfly' from The Gadfly (1955),
A polarizing figure
He was married four times to 3 different women, remarrying his first wife after an initial divorce. He had two children, Galina, and Maxim (who became a pianist, continuing the family trend). Shostakovich passed away on August 9th, 1975 while suffering from lung cancer. However, the official eulogy offered a palpable sense of irony, praising him for acquiring his inspirations from the realities of Soviet life. It further hinted how he reasserted his creativity with socialist realism, contributing to a progressive musical heritage.
A stunningly original composer embroidered with the scars of political intervention, Shostakovich was hailed as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. His centennial was widely celebrated in 2006. A substantial part of his works had firmly established itself in the standardized repertory of the musical folklore.
- About Dmitri Shostakovich at Study
- Biography of Dmitri Shostakovich on IMBd
- A short bio of Dmitri Shostakovich on Music Sales Classical
- About Dmitri Shostakovich on All Music
- About Dmitri Shostakovich on Classic FM
- Discover Shostakovich's greatest works on Deutsche Grmmophon
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