Born Dmitry Dmitriyevich Shostakovich on September 12, 1906, in St. Petersburg, Russia; died on August 9, 1975, in Moscow, U.S.S.R; married Nina Varzar, 1932 (died, 1954); married Margarita Kaynova, 1956; divorced, 1959; married Irina Antonovna Supinskaya, 1962; children: Galina, Maxim. Education: Degree in piano and composition, Petrograd Conservatory, 1925; pursued graduate studies, 1925-30.

Regarded as one of the greatest composers of his time, Dmitry Shostakovich is also the quintessential twentieth-century artist, whose life was a constant struggle to safeguard his artistic integrity in an era of violence, political oppression, and despair. Shostakovich lived his entire professional life in the Soviet Union, a country where all artists, including musicians, were expected to create accessible works glorifying the state. Since a symphony, as opposed to a novel, cannot have a clearly defined message, politicians liked to criticize music they deemed "difficult," "sophisticated," and alienated from the life of ordinary people. The charge of "formalism" implied that a particular composition, being just a formal construction, failed to celebrate the glory of the socialist state. Another favorite accusation was "pessimism," a feeling that questioned the officially imposed image of a nation living in permanent bliss.

Despite the fact that Shostakovich constantly made compromises with the regime, even composing purely propagandistic works, it is to his credit that he managed to create an immensely original and influential oeuvre, which includes operas, 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, concertos, sonatas, and many works in other genres. Writing in a traditional, tonal idiom, Shostakovich developed a highly personal style. The distinctive features of his music include archetypal power, harmonic inventiveness, melodic expressiveness, and a descriptive richness in which the listener may discern irony, sarcasm, despair, and grotesque humor.

Born in St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd after the 1917 Revolution, later becoming Leningrad) in 1906, Shostakovich studied piano and composition at the Petrograd Conservatory, graduating in 1925. His graduation composition was the extraordinary Symphony No. 1. Performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1926, this popular work effectively launched the young musician's career as a composer. His Symphony No. 2, written in 1927, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, had a lukewarm reception, and Shostakovich turned to a new project, an opera entitled The Nose.

Opera Broke New Ground

Based on Nikolai Gogol's satirical masterpiece, which chronicles the woes of a government official whose nose has disappeared, Shostakovich's opera broke new ground, revealing the composer's extraordinary ability to create a grotesquely surreal atmosphere by an imaginative use of the orchestra's sonic potential. While The Nose had a successful premiere in Leningrad in 1930, the work unfortunately attracted the attention of the government. What the audience welcomed as a highly original musical satire, critics rejected as an example of "bourgeois" art, a label that would brand any artist as an enemy of the Soviet state. Shostakovich attempted to convince the government of his loyalty by writing his Symphony No. 3, a celebration of international workers' solidarity, but officials remained skeptical.

Instead of working harder to please the authorities, however, Shostakovich composed an opera that almost destroyed his career. Based on a short story by the Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sets to music a sordid story of adultery and murder. Produced in Leningrad in 1934, Lady Macbeth was praised by connoisseurs as an exceptional dramatic accomplishment. Audiences were particularly impressed by the sonic depiction (trombone glissandi) of sexual intercourse. The official reaction, however, was devastating. Reviewed in Pravda, the official publication of the Communist Party, Lady Macbeth was described as mere noise, a work without redeeming qualities. More was at stake than Shostakovich's career, for the 1930s marked the height of dictator Joseph Stalin's murderous campaign against perceived "enemies" of the Soviet Union.

Returned to Symphonic Music

Having survived the Lady Macbeth fiasco, Shostakovich returned to symphonic music, only to see his Symphony No. 4 condemned during rehearsal. Shostakovich finally received official recognition with his Symphony No. 5, performed in 1937, which both audiences and official critics hailed as a masterfully constructed musical expression of optimism and progress. Encouraged by his success, Shostakovich composed String Quartet No. 1, the first of 15. In this refined, inspired, witty, elegantly crafted work, his first in this notoriously difficult genre, Shostakovich presents himself as an absolute master, anticipating future works of immense artistic value. But Shostakovich's true moment of triumph was his Symphony No. 7 ("Leningrad"), started in 1941, during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Completed in Kuibishev, the country's temporary capital, the Leningrad Symphony was performed in 1942. Musically depicting the Nazi advance as a terrifying, unstoppable mechanical force, Shostakovich found a way to overpower this representation of terror by the ultimate symbol of Soviet victory: a triumphant Russian song. While some Western critics deplored the crudeness and musical primitivism, the Leningrad Symphony never lost its distinction as a national symbol of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

Perhaps because of the tremendous emotional impact of the Leningrad Symphony, his subsequent symphonies, which reflect Shostakovich's efforts to enlarge his musical language and compositional techniques, remained in the shadow of his wartime masterpiece. In 1948 a new campaign against musicians was launched by Andrey Zhdanov, whom the Communist Party had entrusted with the task of eradicating decadent formalism. In addition to an offensive against artistic freedom, the government started waging a war against Jewish culture, triggering a wave of virulent anti-Semitism that the Dutch music historian Francis Maes defined in A History of Russian Music as "another Holocaust."

Composed Works with Jewish Themes

It is significant that during this period Shostakovich composed several works that incorporate Jewish themes: Violin Concerto No. 1 (1948), the String Quartet No. 4 (1949), and 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano (1951). However, even after the thaw following Stalin's death in 1953, Jewish subjects could still get a composer into considerable trouble--and there was a moral, not only musical element, in Shostakovich's interest in Jewish themes. Shostakovich seriously challenged the Soviet state's anti-Semitism by composing his Symphony No. 13, composed in 1962, known as the "Babi Yar." The first movement of this choral symphony sets to music Yevteshunko's poem of the same name, which describes the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, near Kiev. While other movements, also based on poems by Yevtushenko, offer musical commentaries on the foibles of Soviet life, party officials accused Shostakovich--and Yevtushenko--of failing to mention that Jews were not the only victims of the Babi Yar massacre.

Nevertheless, Shostakovich continued to work with poetry, incorporating verse by Lorca, Apollinaire, and Rilke into his Symphony No. 14 (1969) for vocal soloists and orchestra. In his last symphony, Symphony No. 15, Shostakovich is at the height of his powers as a composer. Placing the work in the stark, elemental tonality of C major, he allows his imagination free rein, borrowing from works by other composers, even briefly venturing into the forbidden (for a Soviet composer, at least) realm of 12-tone music. Symphony No. 15 was first performed in Moscow in 1972 under the direction of the composer's son, Maxim.

Toward the end of his life Shostakovich, having waged many battles in the public arena, turned to the timeless subjects of death and human destiny. Apparent in Symphony No. 14, the theme of death is heard in the doleful String Quartet No. 13 (1970). In his last two quartets, Shostakovich eschews tonal experimentation, staying with the realm of tonal music and ingeniously exploiting the expressive potential of traditional tonality. "The remarkable quality of Shostakovich's quartets," wrote Maes, "lies in his stunning mastery of the sound of the string instruments, in the structural depth and refinement, and above all in the quantity of expressive means and musical characters."

Shostakovich died in 1975, hailed simply as a son of the Communist Party. While there is little dispute about the value of his music, there has been much speculation, particularly after the demise of the Soviet Union, concerning Shostakovich's political views. Unconvinced by the composer's numerous expressions of loyalty to his country, scholars have scoured his works for hidden messages indicating a complete condemnation of the U.S.S.R. Indeed, Shostakovich, as his work testifies, rejected certain aspects of Soviet rule; however, as Maes pointed out, defining him as a dissident would be totally anachronistic. The truth about Shostakovich can only be found in his music.

by Zoran Minderovic

Dmitry Shostakovich's Career

Wrote first symphony at the age of 18; opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District brought professional acclaim and official criticism; named full professor at Leningrad Conservatory, 1939; composed legendary "Leningrad" Symphony, 1941-42; appointed professor at Moscow Conservatory, 1943; visited the U.S., 1949; visited England, 1958; became First Secretary of the Composers Union of the Soviet Union, 1960.

Dmitry Shostakovich's Awards

Order of Lenin, 1946, 1956, 1966; People's Artist of the U.S.S.R., 1954; International Sibelius Prize, 1958; Hero of Socialist Labor, 1966; Order of the October Revolution, 1971.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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