Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a Soviet composer who, after Prokofiev's death in 1953, stood quite alone at the summit of Soviet Russian music.

Widely imitated, Dmitri Shostakovich was perhaps the first great composer purposely and consciously to develop a political awareness as an integral part of his art and to accept, even seek, creative guidance from ideological, extramusical sources. His career was troubled and tense at times, yet he was honored more than any other composer of his time, possibly excepting Igor Stravinsky. A natural bent for the stage seemed thwarted by early criticism, and it is chiefly for his 14 symphonies that he is best known.

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in that city through its war and revolutionary (Petrograd; later Leningrad) periods. He was only 11 at the time of the Revolution, and his family was affested by political troubles: His mother's family was of the petty bourgeois that Lenin abhorred. Dmitri attended the Glasser school; in 1919 he entered the Petrograd Conservatory under the protective wing of the composer Alexander Glazunov. Shostakovich studied both piano and composition, the latter with Maximilian Steinberg. The training was rigorous. Shostakovich's diploma work, the First Symphony (1924-1925), was received with unusual enthusiasm by Western audiences eager for the musical fruits of the Bolshevik experiment, and it is still frequently programmed in the West.

Early Works

Socially and politically aware, Shostakovich worked with the Leningrad workers' schools (rabfak) and began to aim his talents toward the stage. At the same time he concertized and did musical "odd jobs." An opera, The Nose (1928), and a ballet, The Golden Age (1929), both satirical, were successful, although his Second and Third Symphonies were not. He began the opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk (later Katerina Izmailova) in 1930; it was to be the first of a trilogy on the fate of women in past periods. It contains some of Shostakovich's most effective music both in lyric, solo vocal pieces and in grotesque orchestral interludes. It was staged successfully throughout the world.

Relations with the Party

In 1936 the opera was officially condemned and the composer taken to task in the Communist party press. Stalin was personally and directly involved (he attended a performance), and the overt issues were those of "formalism," crude eroticism, and musical inaccessibility. The incident served as a platform for the party's ideological guidance of the art; the vocabulary of political control of music was begun, and Shostakovich abandoned the stage for years. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony (it was already in rehearsal) and wrote the Fifth Symphony as an apology and expression of gratitude for the instruction he had received. This work, too, became popular in the West.

With other Soviet artists, Shostakovich benefited from the relaxation of controls which the party deemed necessary during the war years. During this relatively free period he wrote his Sixth through Ninth Symphonies. The Seventh, called the Leningrad Symphony, was begun in that besieged city and finished in an evacuation center. It was received with intense emotion throughout the world. But after the war, and until Stalin's death in 1953, life was a nightmare for intellectuals and artists, a fact now conceded in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich was vigorously attacked not only for a number of his works but also for matters of attitude, origin, and taste. In company with other criticized composers, he apologized in the pattern established in the political trials of the mid-1930s and thanked the party for its concern.

After Stalin died, a thaw began, which remained a peripatetic, unpredictable feature of Soviet intellectual life for several decades following. Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony was first heard late in 1953. Although it has remained a controversial item, it is still occasionally played. The Eleventh (1957) and Twelfth (1961) Symphonies, both programmatic and based on revolutionary-political themes, were ideologically proper but not musically long-lived.

Late Works

In 1963 Shostakovich rewrote Lady Macbeth of Mzensk as Katerina Izmailova, and the opera was quite successful. A comparison of the two versions reveals curiously little change. In the later version Shostakovich was a more painstaking craftsman and editor. He removed certain blatantly erotic portions. In general, he abandoned the complexities of characterization; Katerina, in particular, is no longer the complicated creature that Lady Macbeth was. Also in 1963 Shostakovich resumed teaching—he had lost his teaching posts in 1948.

Shostakovich's works not only grace the symphonic repertoire, but those of chamber and piano music as well. He wrote 12 String Quartets, and his sets of Preludes and Fugues for piano are contemporary classics. His two Concertos for violin and orchestra and his Concerto for cello and orchestra have proved hardy. The Cello Concerto is an outstanding work on which the composer sought the collaboration of Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist for whom it was written. Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony was a symphonic setting of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poetry, including his protest against Soviet anti-Semitism, Babi Yar. The work was, in effect, banned. The Fourteenth Symphony is also a setting of poetic texts— poems of death by various authors, Russian and Western. It is an unusual expression in a milieu which values optimism.

In 1968 at the Fourth Congress of Soviet Composers, Shostakovich reaffirmed his belief that "Soviet music is a weapon in the international ideological battle…. Soviet artists cannot remain indifferent observers in the struggle." It was statements like this which led most to regard Shostakovich as an orthodox Communist, content to toe the party line. Not until after his death when his memoirs were published in the West, did the general public realize how perilous Shostakovich's situation was for most of his career. He was the embodiment of the enlightened Russian intellectual in his work and way of life: rational, disciplined, and self-critical. His constitution was not strong and he often was force to spend time in sanatoriums. Although he was diagnosed with an incurable myelitis in 1959, his death in 1975 came as the result of his third heart attack. Shostakovich's music unites powerful emotional expression with formal mastery, tragedy and humour, pugnacious vitality and resignation. A wide range of stylistic influences, from Bach to revolutionary song, from Russian folk music to 20th-century atonality, combine and merge in a synthesis forged by his genius.

Further Reading on Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich: About Himself and His Times (1981), compiled by L. Grigoriyov and I. Platek, discusses his life and music in his own words. Shostakovich is the subject of biographies by Seroff (1943), Martynov (1947), and Rabinovich (1959). Seroff is out of date, and Martynov and Rabinovich emphasize a Soviet view not altogether useful to the Western reader. Any book on contemporary music will devote considerable space to Shostakovich, as does William Austin, Music in the Twentieth Century (1966). Chapters on Shostakovich are found in Gerald Abraham, Eight Soviet Composers (1943), and Stanley D. Krebs, Soviet Music and Musicians (1970).