Shostakovich is in many ways a polar counter-force for Stravinsky. [...] When I have said that the 7th symphony of Shostakovich is a dull and unpleasant composition, people have responded: "Yes, yes, but think of the background of that symphony." Such an attitude does no good to anyone.
Austria: Decoration for Services to the Republic of Austria in Silver (1967)
Belgium: Member of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium (1960)
Denmark Léonie Sonning Music Prize (1974)
Finland: Wihuri Sibelius Prize (1958)
United Kingdom: Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1966)
United States: Oscar nomination for Khovanshchina, Best Score (Musical) in 1961
Born at Podolskaya street in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Shostakovich was the second of three children of Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich and Sofiya Vasilievna Kokoulina. Shostakovich's paternal grandfather, originally surnamed Szostakowicz, was of Polish Roman Catholic descent (his family roots trace to the region of the town of Vileyka in today's Belarus), but his immediate forebears came from Siberia. A Polish revolutionary in the January Uprising of 1863–4, Bolesław Szostakowicz would be exiled to Narym (near Tomsk) in 1866 in the crackdown that followed Dmitri Karakozov's assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II. When his term of exile ended, Szostakowicz decided to remain in Siberia. He eventually became a successful banker in Irkutsk and raised a large family. His son, Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich, the composer's father, was born in exile in Narim in 1875 and studied physics and mathematics in Saint Petersburg University, graduating in 1899. He then went to work as an Engineer under Dmitri Mendeleev at the Bureau of Weights and Measures in Saint Petersburg. In 1903 he married another Siberian transplant to the capital, Sofiya Vasilievna Kokoulina, one of six children born to a Russian Siberian native.
Their son, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, displayed significant musical talent after he began piano lessons with his mother at the age of nine. On several occasions he displayed a remarkable ability to remember what his mother had played at the previous lesson, and would get "caught in the act" of playing the previous lesson's music while pretending to read different music placed in front of him. In 1918 he wrote a funeral march in memory of two Leaders of the Kadet party, murdered by Bolshevik sailors.
In 1919, at the age of thirteen, he was allowed to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, then headed by Alexander Glazunov, who monitored Shostakovich's progress closely and promoted him. Shostakovich studied piano with Leonid Nikolayev after a year in the class of Elena Rozanova, composition with Maximilian Steinberg, and counterpoint and fugue with Nikolay Sokolov, with whom he became friends. Shostakovich also attended Alexander Ossovsky's history of music classes. Steinberg tried to guide Shostakovich in the path of the great Russian composers, but was disappointed to see him 'wasting' his talent and imitating Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. Shostakovich also suffered for his perceived lack of political zeal, and initially failed his exam in Marxist methodology in 1926. His first major musical achievement was the First Symphony (premiered 1926), written as his graduation piece at the age of nineteen. It was this work which brought him to the attention of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who helped Shostakovich to find accommodation and work in Moscow, and sent a driver around in "a very stylish automobile" to take him to a concert.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Shostakovich worked at TRAM, a proletarian youth theatre. Although he did little work in this post, it shielded him from ideological attack. Much of this period was spent writing his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which was first performed in 1934. It was immediately successful, on both popular and official levels. It was described as "the result of the general success of Socialist construction, of the correct policy of the Party", and as an opera that "could have been written only by a Soviet Composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture".
The year 1927 also marked the beginning of Shostakovich's relationship with Ivan Sollertinsky, who remained his closest friend until the latter's death in 1944. Sollertinsky introduced the Composer to the music of Gustav Mahler, which had a strong influence on his music from the Fourth Symphony onwards.
While writing the Second Symphony, Shostakovich also began work on his satirical opera The Nose, based on the story by Nikolai Gogol. In June 1929, against the composer's own wishes, the opera was given a concert performance; it was ferociously attacked by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). Its stage premiere on 18 January 1930 opened to generally poor reviews and widespread incomprehension amongst Musicians.
In the years after 1936, Shostakovich's symphonic works were outwardly musically conservative, regardless of any subversive political content. During this time he turned increasingly to chamber works, a field that permitted the Composer to explore different and often darker ideas without inviting external scrutiny. While his chamber works were largely tonal, they gave Shostakovich an outlet for sombre reflection not welcomed in his more public works. This is most apparent in the late chamber works, which portray what is described in Grove's Dictionary as a "world of purgatorial numbness"; in some of these he included the use of tone rows, although he treated these as melodic themes rather than serially. Vocal works are also a prominent feature of his late output, setting texts often concerned with love, death and art.
Shostakovich's response to official criticism and, what is more important, the question of whether he used music as a kind of covert dissidence is a matter of dispute. He outwardly conformed to government policies and positions, reading speeches and putting his name to articles expressing the government line. But it is evident he disliked many aspects of the regime, as confirmed by his family, his letters to Isaak Glikman, and the satirical cantata "Rayok", which ridiculed the "anti-formalist" campaign and was kept hidden until after his death. He was a close friend of Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who was executed in 1937 during the Great Purge.
In 1939, before Soviet forces attempted to invade Finland, the Party Secretary of Leningrad Andrei Zhdanov commissioned a celebratory piece from Shostakovich, entitled Suite on Finnish Themes to be performed as the marching bands of the Red Army would be parading through the Finnish capital Helsinki. The Winter War was a bitter experience for the Red Army, the parade never happened, and Shostakovich would never lay claim to the authorship of this work. It was not performed until 2001. After the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1941, Shostakovich initially remained in Leningrad. He tried to enlist for the military but was turned away because of his poor eyesight. To compensate, he became a volunteer for the Leningrad Conservatory’s firefighter brigade and delivered a radio broadcast to the Soviet people listen (help·info). The photograph for which he posed was published in newspapers throughout the country.
Even before the Stalinist anti-Semitic campaigns in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Shostakovich showed an interest in Jewish themes. He was intrigued by Jewish music’s "ability to build a jolly melody on sad intonations". Examples of works that included Jewish themes are the Fourth String Quartet (1949), the First Violin Concerto (1948), and the Four Monologues on Pushkin Poems (1952), as well as the Piano Trio in E minor (1944). He was further inspired to write with Jewish themes when he examined Moisei Beregovski’s thesis on the theme of Jewish folk music in 1946.
The family moved to Moscow in spring 1943. At the time of the Eighth Symphony's premiere, the tide had turned for the Red Army. As a consequence, the public, and most importantly the authorities, wanted another triumphant piece from the Composer. Instead, they got the Eighth Symphony, perhaps the ultimate in sombre and violent expression within Shostakovich's output. In order to preserve the image of Shostakovich (a vital bridge to the people of the Union and to the West), the government assigned the name "Stalingrad" to the symphony, giving it the appearance of a mourning of the dead in the bloody Battle of Stalingrad. However, the symphony did not escape criticism. Its Composer is reported to have said: "When the Eighth was performed, it was openly declared counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet. They said, 'Why did Shostakovich write an optimistic symphony at the beginning of the war and a tragic one now? At the beginning we were retreating and now we're attacking, destroying the Fascists. And Shostakovich is acting tragic, that means he's on the side of the fascists.'" The work was unofficially but effectively banned until 1956.
Shostakovich's musical response to these personal crises was the Eighth String Quartet, composed in only three days. He subtitled the piece, "To the victims of fascism and war", ostensibly in memory of the Dresden fire bombing that took place in 1945. Yet, like the Tenth Symphony, this quartet incorporates quotations from several of his past works and his musical monogram: Shostakovich confessed to his friend Isaak Glikman "I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself." Several of Shostakovich's colleagues, including Natalya Vovsi-Mikhoels and the Cellist Valentin Berlinsky, were also aware of the Eighth Quartet's biographical intent. Peter J. Rabinowitz has also pointed to covert references to Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen in the Eighth Quartet.
The Ninth Symphony (1945), in contrast, was much lighter in tone. Gavriil Popov wrote that it was "splendid in its joie de vivre, gaiety, brilliance, and pungency!! By 1946, however, it was the subject of criticism. Israel Nestyev asked whether it was the right time for "a light and amusing interlude between Shostakovich's significant creations, a temporary rejection of great, serious problems for the sake of playful, filigree-trimmed trifles." The New York World-Telegram of 27 July 1946 was similarly dismissive: "The Russian Composer should not have expressed his feelings about the defeat of Nazism in such a childish manner". Shostakovich continued to compose chamber music, notably his Second Piano Trio (Op. 67), dedicated to the memory of Sollertinsky, with a bittersweet, Jewish-themed totentanz finale.
Shostakovich achieved fame in the Soviet Union under the patronage of Soviet chief of staff Mikhail Tukhachevsky, but later had a complex and difficult relationship with the government. Nevertheless, he received accolades and state awards and served in the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR (1947–1962) and the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union (from 1962 until his death).
In 1948, Shostakovich acquired a book of Jewish folk songs, and from this he composed the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. He initially wrote eight songs that were meant to represent the hardships of being Jewish in the Soviet Union. However in order to disguise this, Shostakovich ended up adding three more songs meant to demonstrate the great life Jews had under the Soviet regime. Despite his efforts to hide the real meaning in the work, the Union of Composers refused to approve his music in 1949 under the pressure of the anti-Semitism that gripped the country. From Jewish Folk Poetry could not be performed until after Stalin’s death in March 1953, along with all the other works that were forbidden.
The restrictions on Shostakovich's music and living arrangements were eased in 1949, when Stalin decided that the Soviets needed to send artistic representatives to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York City, and that Shostakovich should be among them. For Shostakovich, it was a humiliating experience culminating in a New York press conference where he was expected to read a prepared speech. Nicolas Nabokov, who was present in the audience, witnessed Shostakovich starting to read "in a nervous and shaky voice" before he had to break off "and the speech was continued in English by a suave radio baritone". Fully aware that Shostakovich was not free to speak his mind, Nabokov publicly asked the Composer whether he supported the then recent denunciation of Igor Stravinsky's music in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich, who was a great admirer of Stravinsky and had been influenced by his music, had no alternative but to answer in the affirmative. Nabokov did not hesitate to publish that this demonstrated that Shostakovich was "not a free man, but an obedient tool of his government." Shostakovich never forgave Nabokov for this public humiliation. That same year Shostakovich was obliged to compose the cantata Song of the Forests, which praised Stalin as the "great gardener". In 1951 the Composer was made a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR.
Shostakovich's music shows the influence of many of the composers he most admired: Bach in his fugues and passacaglias; Beethoven in the late quartets; Mahler in the symphonies and Berg in his use of musical codes and quotations. Among Russian composers, he particularly admired Modest Mussorgsky, whose operas Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina he re-orchestrated; Mussorgsky's influence is most prominent in the wintry scenes of Lady Macbeth and the Eleventh Symphony, as well as in his satirical works such as "Rayok". Prokofiev's influence is most apparent in the earlier piano works, such as the first sonata and first concerto. The influence of Russian church and folk music is very evident in his works for unaccompanied choir of the 1950s.
Stalin's death in 1953 was the biggest step towards Shostakovich's rehabilitation as a creative Artist, which was marked by his Tenth Symphony. It features a number of musical quotations and codes (notably the DSCH and Elmira motifs, Elmira Nazirova being a Pianist and Composer who had studied under Shostakovich in the year prior to his dismissal from the Moscow Conservatoire), the meaning of which is still debated, whilst the Savage second movement, according to Testimony, is intended as a musical portrait of Stalin himself. The Symphony ranks alongside the Fifth and Seventh as one of his most popular works. 1953 also saw a stream of premieres of the "desk drawer" works.
In 1954, Shostakovich wrote the Festive Overture, opus 96, that was used as the theme music for the 1980 Summer Olympics. In addition his '"Theme from the film Pirogov, Opus 76a: Finale" was played as the cauldron was lit at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
Shostakovich's orchestral works include 15 symphonies and six concerti. His chamber output includes 15 string quartets, a piano quintet, two piano trios, and two pieces for string octet. His solo piano works include two sonatas, an early set of preludes, and a later set of 24 preludes and fugues. Other works include three operas, several song cycles, ballets, and a substantial quantity of film music; especially well known is The Second Waltz, Op. 99, music to the film The First Echelon (1955–1956), as well as the suites of music composed for The Gadfly.
In May 1958, during a visit to Paris, Shostakovich recorded his two piano concertos with André Cluytens, as well as some short piano works. These were issued by EMI on an LP, reissued by Seraphim Records on LP, and eventually digitally remastered and released on CD. Shostakovich recorded the two concertos in stereo in Moscow for Melodiya. Shostakovich also played the piano solos in recordings of the Cello Sonata, Op. 40 with Cellist Daniil Shafran and also with Mstislav Rostropovich; the Violin Sonata, Op. 134, with Violinist David Oistrakh; and the Piano Trio, Op. 67 with Violinist David Oistrakh and Cellist Miloš Sádlo. There is also a short sound film of Shostakovich as soloist in a 1930s concert performance of the closing moments of his first piano concerto. A colour film of Shostakovich supervising one of his operas, from his last year, was also made. A major achievement was EMI's recording of the original, unexpurgated opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. There was at least one recording of the cleaned-up version, Katerina Ismailova, that Shostakovich had made to satisfy Soviet censorship. But when Conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya were finally allowed to emigrate to the West, the Composer begged them to record the full original score, which they did in 1979. It features Vishnevskaya as Katerina, Nicolai Gedda as Sergei, Dimiter Petkov as Boris Ismailov and a brilliant supporting cast under Rostropovich's direction.
In 1959, Shostakovich appeared on stage in Moscow at the end of a concert performance of his Fifth Symphony, congratulating Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for their performance (part of a concert tour of the Soviet Union). Later that year, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic recorded the symphony in Boston for Columbia Records.
The year 1960 marked another turning point in Shostakovich's life: he joined the Communist Party. The government wanted to appoint him General Secretary of the Composers' Union, but in order to hold that position he was required to attain Party membership. It was understood that Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party from 1958 to 1964, was looking for support from the leading ranks of the intelligentsia in an effort to create a better relationship with the Soviet Union’s artists. This event has been interpreted variously as a show of commitment, a mark of cowardice, the result of political pressure, or as his free decision. On the one hand, the apparat was undoubtedly less repressive than it had been before Stalin's death. On the other, his son recalled that the event reduced Shostakovich to tears, and he later told his wife Irina that he had been blackmailed. Lev Lebedinsky has said that the Composer was suicidal. Once he joined the Party, several articles denouncing individualism in music were published in Pravda under his name, though he did not actually write them. In addition, in joining the party, Shostakovich was also committing himself to finally writing the homage to Lenin that he had promised before. His Twelfth Symphony, which portrays the Bolshevik Revolution and was completed in 1961, was dedicated to Vladimir Lenin and called "The Year 1917." Around this time, his health also began to deteriorate.
United States: Oscar nomination for Khovanshchina, Best Score (Musical) in 1961
Shostakovich's relationship with Stravinsky was profoundly ambivalent; as he wrote to Glikman, "Stravinsky the Composer I worship. Stravinsky the thinker I despise." He was particularly enamoured of the Symphony of Psalms, presenting a copy of his own piano version of it to Stravinsky when the latter visited the USSR in 1962. (The meeting of the two composers was not very successful, however; observers commented on Shostakovich's extreme nervousness and Stravinsky's "cruelty" to him.)
In 1964 Shostakovich composed the music for the Russian film Hamlet, which was favourably reviewed by The New York Times: "But the lack of this aural stimulation – of Shakespeare's eloquent words – is recompensed in some measure by a splendid and stirring musical score by Dmitri Shostakovich. This has great dignity and depth, and at times an appropriate wildness or becoming levity".
In 1965 Shostakovich raised his voice in defense of poet Joseph Brodsky, who was sentenced to five years of exile and hard labor. Shostakovich co-signed protests together with Yevtushenko and fellow Soviet artists Kornei Chukovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Samuil Marshak, and the French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. After the protests the sentence was commuted, and Brodsky returned to Leningrad.
United Kingdom: Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1966)
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Belgium: Member of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium (1960)
A preoccupation with his own mortality permeates Shostakovich's later works, among them the later quartets and the Fourteenth Symphony of 1969 (a song cycle based on a number of poems on the theme of death). This piece also finds Shostakovich at his most extreme with musical language, with twelve-tone themes and dense polyphony used throughout. Shostakovich dedicated this score to his close friend Benjamin Britten, who conducted its Western premiere at the 1970 Aldeburgh Festival. The Fifteenth Symphony of 1971 is, by contrast, melodic and retrospective in nature, quoting Wagner, Rossini and the composer's own Fourth Symphony.
He was diffident by nature: Flora Litvinova has said he was "completely incapable of saying 'No' to anybody." This meant he was easily persuaded to sign official statements, including a denunciation of Andrei Sakharov in 1973; on the other hand he was willing to try to help constituents in his capacities as chairman of the Composers' Union and Deputy to the Supreme Soviet. Oleg Prokofiev commented that "he tried to help so many people that ... less and less attention was paid to his pleas." When asked if he believed in God, Shostakovich said "No, and I am very sorry about it."
His last work was his Viola Sonata, which was first performed on 28 December 1975, four months after his death.
Shostakovich's musical influence on later composers outside the former Soviet Union has been relatively slight, although Alfred Schnittke took up his eclecticism and his contrasts between the dynamic and the static, and some of André Previn's music shows clear links to Shostakovich's style of orchestration. His influence can also be seen in some Nordic composers, such as Lars-Erik Larsson. Many of his Russian contemporaries, and his pupils at the Leningrad Conservatory were strongly influenced by his style (including German Okunev, Boris Tishchenko, whose 5th Symphony of 1978 is dedicated to Shostakovich's memory, Sergei Slonimsky, and others). Shostakovich's conservative idiom has grown increasingly popular with audiences both within and beyond Russia, as the avant-garde has declined in influence and debate about his political views has developed.
It is also uncertain to what extent Shostakovich expressed his opposition to the state in his music. The revisionist view was put forth by Solomon Volkov in the 1979 book Testimony, which was claimed to be Shostakovich's memoirs dictated to Volkov. The book alleged that many of the composer's works contained coded anti-government messages, that would place Shostakovich in a tradition of Russian artists outwitting censorship that goes back at least to the early 19th century poet Alexander Pushkin. It is known that he incorporated many quotations and motifs in his work, most notably his signature DSCH theme. His longtime collaborator Yevgeny Mravinsky said that "Shostakovich very often explained his intentions with very specific images and connotations."
Shostakovich was in many ways an obsessive man: according to his daughter he was "obsessed with cleanliness". He synchronised the clocks in his apartment and regularly sent cards to himself to test how well the postal Service was working. Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994 edition) indexes 26 references to his nervousness. Mikhail Druskin remembers that even as a young man the Composer was "fragile and nervously agile". Yuri Lyubimov comments, "The fact that he was more vulnerable and receptive than other people was no doubt an important feature of his genius." In later life, Krzysztof Meyer recalled, "his face was a bag of tics and grimaces."
However, Salonen has since performed and recorded several of Shostakovich's works, including the Piano Concertos NOS. 1 and 2 (1999), the Violin Concerto No. 1 (2010), the Prologue to "Orango" and the Symphony No. 4 (2012).
Musicians and scholars including Laurel Fay and Richard Taruskin contest the authenticity and debate the significance of Testimony, alleging that Volkov compiled it from a combination of recycled articles, gossip, and possibly some information direct from the Composer. Fay documents these allegations in her 2002 article 'Volkov's Testimony reconsidered', showing that the only pages of the original Testimony manuscript that Shostakovich had signed and verified are word-for-word reproductions of earlier interviews given by the Composer, none of which are controversial. (Against this, it has been pointed out by Allan B. Ho and Dmitry Feofanov that at least two of the signed pages contain controversial material: for instance, "on the first page of chapter 3, where [Shostakovich] notes that the plaque that reads 'In this house lived [Vsevolod] Meyerhold' should also say 'And in this house his wife was brutally murdered'.") Maxim Shostakovich stated that Volkov's book was not his father's memories.
In 2004, the musicologist Olga Digonskaya discovered a trove of Shostakovich manuscripts at the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture, Moscow. In a cardboard file were some "300 pages of musical sketches, pieces and scores" in the hand of Shostakovich. "A Composer friend bribed Shostakovich's housemaid to regularly deliver the contents of Shostakovich's office waste bin to him, instead of taking it to the garbage. Some of those cast-offs eventually found their way into the Glinka. ... The Glinka archive 'contained a huge number of pieces and compositions which were completely unknown or could be traced quite indirectly,' Digonskaya said."
This theme emerges once again in his 14th string quartet. Similar to the eighth, the cello introduces this theme, but does so for an entirely different purpose. With this quartet being the last in Shostakovich's "quartet of quartets", the fourteenth serves to honor the Cellist of the Beethoven String Quartet, Sergei Shirinsky. Rather than reflecting the original theme's intentions, this quotation serves as a dedication to Sergei the Cellist, similar to how Katerina praises her lover Sergei.
His greatest and most famous wartime contribution was the Seventh Symphony. The Composer wrote the first three movements in Leningrad and completed the work in Kuibyshev (now Samara) where he and his family had been evacuated. It remains unclear whether Shostakovich really conceived the idea of the symphony with the siege of Leningrad in mind. It was officially claimed as a representation of the people of Leningrad’s brave resistance to the German invaders and an authentic piece of patriotic art at a time when morale needed boosting. The symphony was first premiered by the Bolshoi Theatre orchestra in Kuibyshev and was soon performed abroad in London and the United States. The most compelling performance was the Leningrad premiere by the Radio Orchestra in the besieged city. The orchestra had only fourteen Musicians left, so the Conductor Karl Eliasberg had to recruit anyone who could play a musical instrument to perform the symphony.