Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich is an important figure in 20th century classical music, but an often underscored one. He was not Schoenberg, who developed the twelve-tone technique, nor was he Stravinsky, whose ballet was so novel it is said to have started a riot; it was no single innovation that solidified him as a mind above others.
In fact, his story is often underscored with political tension, the artists of a burgeoning century, motivated with the possibilities paved by the avant-garde, coming into friction and sometimes-deadly conflict with a power that wanted them to sing only one kind of song.
A conflict he was to deal with himself, for all his life.
Born in 1906 as the middle child to a comfortable family in Saint Petersburg, Shostakovich was to grow up to a whirlwind of change in the society around him. His parents, Dmitri Boleslavovich and Sofia Vasiliyevna, were both Siberian Russian immigrants to the capital city.
Sofia Vasiliyevna began piano lessons with her only son when he was nine, and found that he displayed an extraordinary aptitude to playing and to music, particularly a keen memory for pieces he had past played. Four years later, at thirteen, he was admitted to the Petrograd Conservatory (now the Rimsky-Korsakov Saint Petersburg State Conservatory) under Alexander Glazunov.
Initial 1925 reception to his very first publicly played compositions in Moscow was lukewarm, but it found Shostakovich a patron in General Mikhail Nikolaiyevich Tukhachevsky. The General wanted him to write and perform out of Moscow, but Sofia Vasiliyevna wished for him to stay in Leningrad– and he tended to follow what his mother wished.
A nineteen-year-old Shostakovich would write his First Symphony for his graduation piece, and received enthusiastic and lauding praise for the work upon its premiere– this was the beginning of a soaring career that he would enjoy afterwards. He also continued the performance pianist aspect of his life, however his style with the black and white keys was not quite as admired as his skill with staff and pen. Musical scholar Arnold Alschwang called his playing "profound and lacking any salon-like mannerisms" for its perceived dryness, impulsivity, lack of performing flair.
Yes, Shostakovich would enjoy success starting with his First Symphony. As he explored his own sound, what he could do with music, modernism and experimentation, public reception to each new piece he published would fluctuate, but he remained largely well-praised.
This was until his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which premiered in 1934. Lady Macbeth would enjoy high and immediate success, praise coming from both the common audience and the critics who wrote in magazines and papers. A wild and emotional work about a woman who commits murder over a love affair she commits, it was described as "could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture."
Then came late January 1936, when Joseph Stalin paid a rare visit to the opera. He and those he came with left before the end of the play, and without a word. When Shostakovich came onstage to bow, he was as white as a sheet.
Within the next couple of days, Shostakovich found out that an editorial had been published in the official newspaper Pravda. It was called Muddle Instead of Music: On the Opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and dismissed the opera as something formalist and bourgois, calling it course, primitive, and vulgar. Most dangerously, however, it insinuated a possibility that the opera, and Shostakovich as a composer, was a part of a potential degeneration in the Soviet arts to the petty bourgois and "leftist distortion." It implied, potentially deadly for Shostakovich, that an attempt to undermine Soviet values was present and intentional. "It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."
Indeed, this was very, very dangerous for Shostakovich. This article, anonymous but surely agreed with enough by Stalin to appear in Pravda marked his fall into denunciation, making it dangerous not only for him to make his music but for others, friends, family, jobs, associates, admirers, to associate with him in any positive way. This was the beginning of a long struggle by Shostakovich to reckon with and deal with the impossible perception of an authority that had a very narrow view of what art was art worth existing, what art progressed rather than degenerated, what artists could remain alive.
Shostakovich wasn't the only one suffering, of course. After all, 1936 was the beginning of Stalin's Great Terror.
His fifth symphony, markedly more conservative in style than what came before, is seen as a response to his denunciation. It is characterized as "a Soviet artist's creative response to just criticism" and a hidden expression of anger and grief at Stalin's government, simultaneous and contradictory. Its loud fourth movement is its most famous, and has been pointed out as being percieved as both a triumphal march and a burst of anger and sad dissent. This piece points to the idea that Shostakovich often layered his music within deceptions and double-meanings– some more honest, some more appeasatory.
Written in three days, his Eighth String Quartet is dedicated to "the victims of fascism and war." However, this deeply personal piece is believed to have been prompted by his having to join the USSR Communist party in 1960, the very party which had pressured him on his art for many years. Featuring a harsh, agonized sound along with frequent quotations of the DSCH motif, representing his name, and other past pieces by him, including his 2nd Piano Trio, Lady Macbeth, his 1st Cello Concerto, and a revolutionary song called Tortured by Grievous Bondage, this quartet is believed to have been the note to a planned suicide.
A momental symphony, this piece was written amidst the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. The longest siege in recorded history, lasting over four years, the entire city of Leningrad was wrapped in tension, war, and widespread fear and mass starvation. While Shostakovich himself managed to leave the city partially through the Siege, being an important individual, he partially wrote this symphony in Leningrad and dedicated it to its people. Featuring a long, building march in the first movement, and ending with a pained triumph, the symphony was played by the weak-member'd city orchestra during the Siege and heard by the Nazi soldiers camped outside.
Symphony No. 1 in F minor (1925)
Symphony No. 2 in B major "To October" (1927)
Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major, "The First of May" (1929)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor (1936)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor (1939)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, "Leningrad" (1941)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1943)
Symphony No. 9 in E♭ major (1945)
Symphony No. 10 in E minor (1953)
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, "The Year 1905" (1957)
Symphony No. 12 in D minor, "The Year 1917 (1961)
Symphony No. 13 in B♭ minor, "Babi-yar" (1962)
Symphony No. 14 in G minor (1969)
Symphony No. 15 in A major (1971)
String Quartet No. 1 in C major (1938)
String Quartet No. 2 in A major (1944)
String Quartet No. 3 in F major (1946)
String Quartet No. 4 in D major (1949)
String Quartet No. 5 in B♭ major (1952)
String Quartet No. 6 in G major (1956)
String Quartet No. 7 in F♯ minor (1960)
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor (1960)
String Quartet No. 9 in E♭ major (1964)
String Quartet No. 10 in A♭ major (1964)
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor (1966)
String Quartet No. 12 in D♭ major (1968)
String Quartet No. 13 in B♭ minor (1970)
String Quartet No. 14 in F♯ major (1972–1973)
String Quartet No. 15 in E♭ minor (1974)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor (1933)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor (1947–1948)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major (1957)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in E♭ major (1959)
Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major (1966)
Violin Concerto No. 2 in C♯ minor (1967)
Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor (1923)
Two pieces for string octet (1924–1925)
Impromptu for viola and piano (1931)
Cello Sonata in D minor (1934)
Moderato for cello and piano (1934)
Piano Quintet in G minor (1940)
Polka in F♯ minor for two harps (1941)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor (1944)
Violin Sonata (1968)
Viola Sonata (1975)
Eight Preludes (1920)
Minuet, Prelude, and Intermezzo (1917 or 1920)
Three Fantastic Dances (1922)
Suite in F♯ minor for two pianos (1922)
Sonata No. 1 (1926)
24 Preludes (1932–1933)
Sonata No. 2 in B minor (1943)
Children's Notebook (1944–1945)
24 Preludes and Fugues (1950-1951)
Dances of the Dolls (1952)
Concertino in A minor for two pianos (1953)
Tarantella for two pianos (1954)
Oath to the People's Commissar (1941)
Songs of a Guard's Division (1941)
Russian Folk Songs (1943)
Poem of the Motherland (1947)
Song of the Forests (1949)
The Homeland Hears (1951)
Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets (1951)
Sun Shines over Our Motherland (1952)
The Execution of Stepan Razin (1964)
Two Choruses after Davidenko (1962)
The Golden Age (1930)
The Bolt (1931)
The Limpid Stream (1939
The Lady and the Hooligan (1962)
The Dreamers (1975)
The Nose (1928)
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934)
The Big Lightning (1933, unfinished)
Orango (1932, unfinished)
The Gamblers (1942, unfinished)
Moscow Cheryomushki (1958)
Katerina Ismailova, revision of Lady Macbeth (1963)
The New Babylon (1929)
Golden Mountains (1931)
Love and Hate (1934)
Girl Friends (1935)
The Youth of Maxim (1935)
The Return of Maxim (1937)
Volochayev Days (1938)
The Vyborg Side (1938)
The Great Citizen (1939)
The Man with the Gun (1938)
The Silly Little Mouse (1939)
The Adventures of Korzinkina (1940)
Simple People (1945)
The Young Guard (1948)
Meeting on the Elbe (1948)
The Fall of Berlin (1949)
The Unforgettable Year 1919 (1951)
Song of the Great Rivers (1954)
The Gadfly (1955)
The First Echelon (1956)
Moscow Cheryomushki (1962)
Five Days, Five Nights (1960)
Katerina Ismailova (1966)
Sofiya Perovskaya (1967)
Two Fables of Krylov (1922)
Six Romances on Texts by Japanese Poets (1932)
From Karl Marx to Our Own Days (1932)
Impromptu Madrigal (1933)
Four Romances on Verses by Pushkin (1937)
Seven Arrangements of Finnish Folk Songs (1939)
Six Romances on Verses by English Poets (1942)
Patriotic Song after Dolmatovsky (1943)
Song of the Red Army (1943)
From Jewish Folk Poetry (1948)
Three Songs from Meeting on the Elbe (1956)
Two Romances on Verses by Lermontov (1950)
Four Songs to Words by Dolmatovsky (1951)
Four Monologues on Verses by Pushkin (1952)
Greek Songs (1953)
October Dawn (1954)
Five Romances on Verses by Dolmatovsky (1954)
There Were Kisses (1954)
Spanish Songs (1956)
Satires, Pictures of the Past (1960)
Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok (1967)
Spring, Spring (1967)
Six Romances on Verses by English Poets (1971)
Six Poems by Marina Tsvetayeva (1973)
Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1974)
Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin (1975)
Scherzo in F♯ minor (1919)
Theme and Variations in B♭ major (1922)
Scherzo in E♭ major (1924)
The Green Company (1931)
Five Fragments (1935)
Solemn Mrch (1942)
Festive Overture in A major (1954)
Suite for Variety Orchestra (1956)
the Flame of Eternal Glory (1960)
Overture on Russian
and Kyrgyz Folk Themes (1963)
Funeral, Triumphal Prelude (1967)
March of the Soviet Militia (1970)
for The Bedbug (1929)
for The Gunshot (1929)
for Virgin Soil (1930)
for Rule, Britannia! (1931)
for Hypothetically Murdered (1931)
for Hamlet (1932)
for The Human Comedy (1934)
for Hail, Spain (1936)
for King Lear (1940)
for Native Country, Native Leningrad (1942)
for Russian River (1944)
for Victorious Spring (1945)
While often tonal, Shostakovich's music stands out from a more approachable orchestral style with his use of atonality, chromaticism, and the grotesque to create a sense of tension and energy in his sound. He is also known for drawing quotation and inspiration from himself and others, along with a strong draw from klezmer in some of his works.
There is a definite style change within his works: before and after his denunciations, along with pieces larger and more public versus more intimate chamber works. His symphonies, being grand works that will go under greater scrutiny by the party, seem to have less of an honest rawness than his small string quartets. Before his denunciation in 1936, his music was more outwardly experimental in feel, textures, techniques, and structures. We do not have to wonder what precipitated his slant away from experimentation.
Shostakovich could make a lot out of very little, a powerful and unique texture out of a small chamber group or a solo; however, his orchestral works could be full and rich, not unlike Mahler or Mussorgsky, whom he admired. Later in his life, the texture of his pieces seems to grow more bare, strained, sparse. Deathly.
However, for all of his struggle, Shostakovich's music is not devoid of emotion. In fact, quite the opposite. To quote pianist Boris Giltburg: "Shostakovich had an incredible ability to take very basic, raw human emotions– maybe not nuanced, maybe not multi-layered, but something which everyone can feel very deeply: hope, fear, anger, love. And he knew how to encapsulate these feelings in notes and throw them at the listener with such force that we sometimes shake from the shock of the impact."
Shostakovich would die of heart failure with complications from Lou Gehrig's disease in 1975. To this day, reevaluations and debates regarding Shostakovich and his place in politics and history continue.
The Soviet and Stalinist government tried to make him an ideologue for the kind of art that they considered valuable, and with these efforts made his life extremely difficult. And yet, in debates about him both during and after his passing, those who oppose the USSR seem to take him on their shoulders as well, declare him surely a secret enemy of communism (and thus, lover of capitalism)– all they seem to achieve, here, is to make him an ideologue once again. Yes, he struggled under the authoritarian policies of the Soviet government, but what good can we do by parroting Cold War twain-splitting ideology time and time again, when real history is far more complicated than the Good Side vs. the Bad Side?
Art cannot exist without the circumstances that created it: politics, history, pain, opinions, problems, emotions. Yet, we don't know precisely what Shostakovich thought at every moment of his life, what he truly felt of himself or his art in any definitive way. As if there is a definitive way or perspective with which one can consider themself. Testimony, a book claiming to be full of, well, testimony, controversial and sometimes fiery, from the man himself, has come under fire for its truthfulness across the years.
But he was still a man who lived. He had complicated and sometimes messy and often loving relationships with the people around him. He was obsessed with cleanliness, fragile and diffident in personality. He loved football, and was a qualified referee for the sport. And he made music, music that may not be always beautiful in the typical sense but is emotive, brilliant, compelling, and enrapturing.
And it's music I admire very much.