Celebrating Music in our Schools: Dmitri Shostakovich

By Maya Albright – Tri-M Member

A reticent opponent of the Soviet cause, musical composer Dmitri Shotakovich led a turbulent life in Soviet-controlled Russia, expressing his political dissent through musical works which reveal the haunting and tragic nature of an authoritarian government. Dmitri Dmitryevich Shostakovich was born September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg Russia, and died on August 9, 1975, (aged 69 years) in Moscow of the former U.S.S.R. As opposed to using his compositions- including 15 symphonies, chamber works, and concerti- as an expression of his freedom, Shostakovich’s works included thinly-veiled critiques of the restrictions and undertakings of an oppressive Soviet regime. 

Shostakovich began his life playing the piano in such settings as the Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory at the age of 13, studying piano alongside Leonid Nikolayev until 1923 and composition alongside Aleksandr Glazunov and Maksimilian Steinberg until 1925. Despite receiving an honorable mention in the renowned Chopin International Competition for Pianists in Warsaw in 1927, Shostakovich largely discontinued his career as a virtuosic pianist by the age of 20 years old.

Despite this “setback”, Shostakovich gained instant global success and recognition from his Symphony No, 1 (1924-1925). Stylistically, Symphony No. 1 contained the obvious influence of composers ranging from Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith to the more contemporary Sergey Prokofiev. The diversity of Shostakovich’s music continued to increase with time, including an even wider range of influence from renowned composers and musicians. In this time, when the Soviet Union was still young, the works of composers as radical as Igor Stravinsky and Alban Berg brought a variety of cultural influence, including experimentations with the avant-garde, to a freer and more lenient U.S.S.R. Taking advantage of this short-lived freedom, Shostakovich himself wrote an avant-garde and satirical opera titled The Nose (1927-1928) based on Nikolay Gogol’s story Nos. From there Shostakovich ventured into a genre of increased sophistication with his second opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1930-1932, retitled Katerina Izmaylova), but too late; even this more moderate music had become too radical for an increasingly authoritarian Soviet government. 

The implementation of Joseph Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan in 1928 marked a period of severe and unwavering cultural repression, demanding a direct and popular style of music, but nothing more. In 1932 both avant-garde and jazz-style music were officially banned, and composers with even the most inconsequential qualms with the Soviet government (including Tchaikovsky, who did not have an official status in tsarist Russia), were scrutinized and subsequently ostracized from the musical consumer. When Stalin himself attended a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936, he was angered to the point of issuing a public admonishment of both the opera and its composer. Thus, Shostakovich’s opera and still unperformed Symphony No. 4 (1935-36) were withdrawn following attacks in the official press. When Shostakovich did return with Symphony No. 5 (1937), he did so with immediate success. Symphony No. 5 was lauded by Soviet authorities as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”, and appreciated by the public despite the serious and somber undertones of his music.

Symphony No. 5 marked a stark transition in style for Shostakovich, highlighting themes of Gustav Mahler and featuring melodic concentration and classical form which he had not yet utilized. Shostakovich continued to use the monolithic Baroque structures of both the fugue and chaconne (each derivations and expansions of a single melodic idea), as well as the contrast between major and minor thirds. In addition, the repeated four-note sequence of D-E♭-C-B can be interpreted as the initials of Shostakovich himself (specifically spelling out D. Sch.) when read according to the labels of German musical notations where E♭ represents “s” and B represents “h”. 

When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Shostakovich had been teaching composition at the Leningrad Conservatory for four years. It was here that Shostakovich began his composition of Symphony No. 7 (1941), though it was finished in Kuybyshev (now Samara) after both he and his family were evacuated. The near-instant fame of Symphony No. 7 was not only a result of its musical quality, but also due to the dramatic circumstances in which it was written (which appealed to many Soviet citizens due to shared personal experiences). In 1943 Shostakovich found himself a teacher of composition at the Moscow conservatory, and in 1945 he also taught at the Leningrad Conservatory. 

Despite a few years’ reprieve, Shostakovich became once again the object of public attack and subsequent disgrace at the beginning of the Cold War. His works during the mid-1940s are starkly reflective of this personal strife, and are largely regarded as Shostakovich’s most powerful works (including Symphony No. 8 [1943], the Piano Trio [1944], and the Violin Concerto No. 1 [1947-48]). In 1948, at the beginning of the Cold War, Soviet theoretician Andrey Zhdanov called a conference of the U.S.S.R.’s leading musicians in Moscow, where they were criticized harshly. Shostakovich, who attended this conference, was soon after fired from both the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories, significantly reducing his influence and publicity in general. As a means of rebellion, Shostakovich took the opportunity to write his String Quartet No. 4 (1949) and Quartet No. 5 (1951) to solidify his musical presence and reaffirm his loyalty to his own style. In 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 10 as an attack on the Soviet policy of cultural oppression (Zhdanovism), and encouraged revolution with his Symphony No. 11 (1957). In 1958 the two works earned him the Lenin Prize and the Wihuri Sibelius Prize.

The rest of Shostakovich’s life was largely free of official interference, with the obvious exception of his Symphony No. 13 (1962), which was based upon texts collectively titled Baby Yar and written by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 (1969) was a natural deterrent to official circles due to its overwhelming theme of death, and was therefore widely praised by others in the musical community as deeply impressive. 

Shostakovich also engaged in international travels during his later life, including a visit to the United States in 1949, and extended tour of Western Europe in 1958 (where he was elected an honorary member of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Italy), and Great Britain. In Great Britain Shostakovich was awarded an honorary doctorate of music at the University of Oxford, and in 1966 he was given the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal. 

Prokofiev’s death in 1953 left Shostakovich as the clear leader of Russian music, and even today a subject of dispute between those who consider his music the appraisal of a devoted Communist and those who consider him a soft-spoken dissident.

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