Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (September 25 [O.S. September 12] 1906 – August 9, 1975) was a Russian composer of the Soviet period.
Shostakovich had a complex and difficult relationship with the Soviet government, suffering two official denunciations of his music, in 1936 and 1948, and the periodic banning of his work. At the same time, he received a number of accolades and state awards and served in the Supreme Soviet. Despite the official controversy, his works were popular; he is now held to be, as Grove's judges him, the most talented Soviet composer of his generation.
After a period influenced by Prokofiev and Stravinsky (Symphony No. 1), Shostakovich switched to modernism (Symphony No. 2 and The Nose) before developing a hybrid of styles with Lady Macbeth and the state-suppressed Fourth Symphony. This hybrid style ranged from the neo-classical (with Stravinsky’s influences) to the post-romantic music. His tonality involved much use of modality and some astringent neo-classical harmonies à la Hindemith and Prokofiev. His music frequently includes sharp contrasts and elements of the grotesque.
Shostakovich prided himself on his orchestration, which is clear, economical, and well-projected. This aspect of Shostakovich's technique owes more to Gustav Mahler than Rimsky-Korsakov. His greatest works are generally considered to be his symphonies and string quartets, fifteen of each. Other works include operas, six concertos, and a substantial quantity of film music. David Fanning concludes in Grove that, "Amid the conflicting pressures of official requirements, the mass suffering of his fellow countrymen, and his personal ideals of humanitarian and public service, he succeeded in forging a musical language of colossal emotional power." Shostakovich is now regarded as "the most popular composer of serious art music of the middle years of the 20th century".
Born at 2 Podolskaya Ulitsa in St. Petersburg, Russia, Shostakovich was the second of three children born to Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich and Sofiya Vasilievna Shostakovich. His family was politically liberal (one of his uncles was a Bolshevik, but the family also sheltered far-right extremists). He was a child prodigy as both a pianist and composer, his talent becoming apparent after he began piano lessons at the age of eight with his mother. (On one occasion, his mother suspected that by playing him the music first, she was not helping him learn to read music, but that he was only pretending to read and mimicking what she had just played for him. She then deliberately put the wrong music in front of herself and played something different. When he played what she played while looking up at the music, she realized she needed to take a different tactic in teaching him to read.) In 1918, he wrote a funeral march in memory of two leaders of the Kadet party, murdered by Bolshevik sailors. In 1919, he was allowed to enter the Petrograd Conservatory headed by Alexander Glazunov. However, young Dmitry 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 twenty.
After graduation, he initially embarked on a dual career as a concert pianist and composer, but his dry style of playing (Fay comments on his "emotional restraint" and "riveting rhythmic drive") was often unappreciated. He nevertheless won an "honorable mention" at the First Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1927. After the competition Shostakovich met the conductor Bruno Walter, who was so impressed by the composer's First Symphony that he conducted the Berlin premiere later that year. Thereafter, Shostakovich concentrated on composition and soon limited performances primarily to those of his own works. In 1927 he wrote his Second Symphony (subtitled To October). While writing the symphony, he also began his satirical opera The Nose, based on the story by Gogol. In 1929, the opera was criticized as "formalist" by RAPM, the Stalinist musicians' organization, and it opened to generally poor reviews in 1930.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s he 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; it was first performed in 1934 and was immediately successful, both on a popular and official level. It was said to be “the result of the general success of Socialist construction, of the correct policy of the Party" and that such an opera “could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture.”
In 1936 Shostakovich fell from grace. The year began with a series of attacks on him in Pravda, in particular an article entitled Muddle Instead of Music. The campaign, which condemned Lady Macbeth as formalist, "coarse, primitive and vulgar", was thought to have been instigated by Stalin; consequently, commissions began to dry up, and his income fell by about three quarters. The Fourth Symphony entered rehearsals that December, but the political climate made performance impossible. It was not performed until 1961, but Shostakovich did not repudiate the work: it retained its designation as his Fourth Symphony. A piano reduction was published in 1946.
More widely, 1936 marked the beginning of the Great Terror, in which many of the composer's friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed. His only consolation in this period was the birth of his daughter Galina in 1936; his son Maxim was born two years later.
The composer's response to his denunciation was the Fifth Symphony of 1937, which was musically more conservative than his earlier works. It was a success, and is still one of his most popular works. It was also at this time that Shostakovich composed the first of his string quartets. His chamber works allowed him to experiment and express ideas which would have been unacceptable in his more public symphonic pieces. In September 1937, he began to teach composition at the Conservatory, which provided some financial security but interfered with his own creative work.
On the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany in 1941, Shostakovich initially remained in Leningrad during the siege, when he wrote the first three movements of his Seventh Symphony (nicknamed Leningrad). He also contributed to propaganda efforts, posing as a fire warden and delivering a radio broadcast to the Soviet people. In October 1941, the composer and his family evacuated to Kuybishev (now Samara), where the symphony was completed. It was adopted as a symbol of Russian resistance both in the USSR and in the West.
In spring 1943 the family moved to Moscow. Whilst the Seventh Symphony depicts a heroic (and ultimately victorious) struggle against adversity, the Eighth Symphony of that year is perhaps the ultimate and violent expression within Shostakovich's output, resulting in it being banned until 1956. The Ninth Symphony (1945), in contrast, is an ironic parody, which failed to satisfy demands for a "hymn of victory". Shostakovich continued to compose chamber music, notably his Second Piano Trio, dedicated to the memory of Sollertinsky, with a bitter-sweet, Jewish-themed totentanz finale.
In 1948 Shostakovich, along with many other composers, was again denounced for formalism in the Zhdanov decree. Most of his works were banned, he was forced to publicly repent, and his family had privileges withdrawn. Yuri Lyubimov says that at this time "he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn't be disturbed". In the next few years his compositions were divided into film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works "for the desk drawer". The latter included the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. There is some dispute over whether he realized the dangers of writing the latter. Laurel Fay has argued that he was attempting to conform with official policy by adopting folk song as his inspiration; on the other hand it was written at a time when the post-war anti-Semitic campaign was already under way, and Shostakovich had close ties with some of those affected.
The restrictions on Shostakovich's music and living arrangements were eased in 1949, in order to secure his participation in a delegation of Soviet notables to the U.S. That year he also wrote his cantata Song of the Forests, which praised Stalin as the "great gardener". In 1951 the composer was made a deputy to the Supreme Soviet. Stalin's death in 1953 was the biggest step towards Shostakovich's official rehabilitation, which was marked by his Tenth Symphony. It features a number of musical quotations and codes (notably the DSCH and Elmira motifs), the meaning of which is still debated, whilst the savage second movement is said to be a musical portrait of Stalin himself. It ranks alongside the Fifth as one of his most popular works. 1953 also saw a stream of premieres of the "desk drawer" works.
During the forties and fifties Shostakovich had close relationships with two of his pupils: Galina Ustvolskaya and Elmira Nazirova. He taught Ustvolskaya from 1937 to 1947. The nature of their relationship is far from clear: Mstislav Rostropovich described it as "tender" and Ustvolskaya claimed in a 1995 interview that she rejected a proposal from him in the fifties. However, in the same interview, Ustvolskaya's friend, Viktor Suslin, said that she had been "deeply disappointed" in him by the time of her graduation in 1947. The relationship with Nazirova seems to have been one-sided, expressed largely through his letters to her, and can be dated to around 1953 to 1956. In the background to all this remained Shostakovich's first, open marriage to Nina Varzar until her death in 1954. He married his second wife, Margarita Kainova, in 1956; the couple divorced three years later.
In 1954, Shostakovich wrote the Festive Overture, opus 96, that was used as the theme music of the 1980 Summer Olympics.
The year 1960 marked another turning point in Shostakovich's life: his joining of the Communist Party. This event has been interpreted variously as a show of commitment, a mark of cowardice, or as the result of political pressure. Lev Lebedinsky has said that the composer was suicidal. Around this time, his health also began to deteriorate. Shostakovich's musical response to these personal crises was the Eighth String Quartet, which like the Tenth Symphony, incorporates quotations and his musical monogram.
In 1962 he married for the third time, to Irina Supinskaya. In a letter to his friend Isaak Glikman, he wrote, "her only defect is that she is 27 years old. In all other respects she is splendid: clever, cheerful, straightforward and very likeable."
That year saw Shostakovich again turn to the subject of anti-Semitism in his Thirteenth Symphony (subtitled Babi Yar). The symphony sets a number of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the first of which commemorates a massacre of the Jews during the Second World War. Opinions are divided as to how great a risk this was: the poem had been published in Soviet media, and was not banned, but it remained controversial. After the symphony's premiere, Yevtushenko was forced to add a stanza to his poem which said that Russians and Ukrainians had died alongside the Jews at Babi Yar.
In later life, Shostakovich suffered from chronic ill health, but he resisted giving up cigarettes and vodka. From 1958 he suffered from a debilitating condition which particularly affected his right hand, eventually forcing him to give up piano playing: in 1965 this was diagnosed as polio. He also suffered heart attacks the following year and again in 1971, and several falls in which he broke both his legs; in 1967 he wrote in a letter:
"Target achieved so far: 75% (right leg broken, left leg broken, right hand defective. All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.)"
A preoccupation with his own mortality permeates much of Shostakovich's later works, among them the later quartets and the Fourteenth Symphony of 1969 (a song cycle based on a number of poems concerning the theme of death). The subject matter of this work also coincides with Shostakovich at his most extreme in terms of musical language, with twelve-note themes being used throughout as well as dense polyphony. The Fifteenth Symphony of 1971 is, by contrast, melodic and retrospective in nature, quoting from Wagner, Rossini and the composer's own Fourth Symphony.
Shostakovich died of lung cancer on August 9, 1975 and after a civic funeral was interred in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow. The official obituary did not appear in Pravda until three days after his death, apparently because the wording had to be approved at the highest level, by Brezhnev and the rest of the Politburo. Even before his death he had been commemorated in the naming of the Shostakovich Peninsula on Alexander Island, Antarctica.
He was survived by his third wife Irina, his daughter Galina, and his son Maxim, a pianist and conductor who was the dedicatee and first performer of some of his father's works. Shostakovich himself left behind several recordings of his own piano works, while other noted interpreters of his music include his friends Emil Gilels, Mstislav Rostropovich, Tatiana Nikolayeva, Maria Yudina, David Oistrakh and members of the Beethoven Quartet.
Shostakovich's musical influence on later composers outside the former Soviet Union has been relatively slight, although Alfred Schnittke has taken 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 Kalevi Aho and Lars-Erik Larsson. Many of his Russian contemporaries, and his pupils at the Leningrad Conservatory, however, 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 nonetheless 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. According to Grove, he has now become "the most popular composer of serious art music of the middle years of the 20th century".
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