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Music Memories: Dmitri Shostakovich

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich in the audience at the Bach Celebration of July 28, 1950
Photo by Roger & Renate Rössing, Deutsche Fotothek‎ / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

On September 25, 1906, Dmitri Shostakovich was born. Shostakovich was a composer who endured several cycles of official favor and disfavor from the Russian government; despite the political turmoil, he was one of the 20th century’s most important composers.

Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies drew the most attention, not only from the public and the critics, but from the government. For that reason, our overview of his life and career will focus primarily on the symphonies.

He was only 19 when he composed his first symphony; it was his graduation piece at the St. Petersburg conservatory, where he had been a student for six years. Even at this early age, he was already showing a lack of enthusiasm for political orthodoxy; in his final year at the conservatory, he had to retake an exam on Marxist theory after failing it the first time.

Shostakovich’s next two symphonies were more experimental in style, and therefore less popular with Russian authorities. But Shostakovich had officially designated each as a commemoration of recent Russian history, which may have been enough to keep him from getting into too much trouble. The 1927 second symphony was given the title “To October,” and paid honor to the tenth anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution; 1930’s third symphony, “First of May,” featured a chorus singing in praise of the first May Day.

>Shostakovich’s problems began with his 1934 opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The initial response was quite positive. But in January 1936, Joseph Stalin attended a performance; he left without speaking to Shostakovich. Two days later, the state newspaper Pravda published its review, “Muddle Instead of Music.” That began a nationwide series of reappraisals as critics who had originally praised the opera declared that those earlier opinions had been in error. (Shostakovich made some minor revisions to the opera in 1962; that revised version is called Katerina Ismailova.)

Katerina Ismailova
Shostakovich, Dmitri

A desperate Shostakovich arranged to meet the Minister of Culture, who warned him that he must “reject formalist errors and in his art attain something that could be understood by the broad masses.” “Formalism,” as used by the Soviet government, was a reference to the idea of “art for art’s sake” that served no broader social purpose; to the government, all music was, in some way, expected to serve government ends and advance government goals.

As a result of this denunciation, Shostakovich saw his income drop by 75%. His fourth symphony, which had been scheduled to premiere in December 1936, was withdrawn; it wasn’t publicly performed until 1961. During 1936 and 1937, Shostakovich focused mostly on writing film scores; Stalin was known to enjoy movies and movie music, and writing scores provided fewer opportunities for potentially dangerous personal expression.

By November 1937, Shostakovich’s reputation had been sufficiently rehabilitated that he was able to premiere his fifth symphony. It was more conservative in style, and in a newspaper article published shortly before the premiere, Shostakovich described the symphony as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism.” Or, at any rate, the article was published under Shostakovich’s name; it may well have been written on his behalf.

Shostakovich attempted to enlist when the Soviet Union entered World War II, but was rejected because of his poor eyesight. Instead, he wrote patriotic pieces in support of the war effort. His seventh symphony, from 1942, was his longest at about 75 minutes. The “Leningrad” symphony was dedicated to the besieged city, though it had mostly been written before the siege began. M.T. Anderson tells the story of the “Leningrad” symphony in Symphony for the City of the Dead.

Symphony for the City of the Dead
Anderson, M. T.

The eighth symphony of 1943 didn’t make the government quite so happy. They had hoped for another grand, triumphal piece, and this symphony was a bleak and gloomy work. The government labeled it the “Stalingrad” symphony and declared that it was a piece of mourning for those killed in the Battle of Stalingrad. The symphony was never formally banned, but it was more than a decade before it was heard again in Russia.

At this point, it was beginning to seem as if Shostakovich simply couldn’t win. If the eighth symphony was too gloomy, then surely they’d appreciate the 1945 ninth symphony, a much sunnier work. And at first, it was well-received. But within a year, the government and its friendly critics were calling the piece “a rejection of great, serious problems for the sake of playful, filigree-trimmed trifles.”

In 1948, the Soviet Central Committee issued the Zhdanov Decree, a condemnation of formalism that was meant to purge Soviet music of western influence. Shostakovich and other composers were obliged to make public apologies for their formalist tendencies, and much of their music was banned. Shostakovich was fired from his professorship at the St. Petersburg conservatory.

For the next several years, Shostakovich returned to the relative safety of writing film music, along with official pieces for the government. His more serious music was written, as he put it, “for the desk drawer,” with the hopes that it could someday be heard.

Stalin died in 1953, and with his death, the second rehabilitation of Shostakovich began. His tenth symphony, which premiered later that year, is often interpreted as a satirical musical depiction of Stalin. At one point, an increasingly frantic dance is interrupted by a musical motif that represents Shostakovich himself. (In the German system of naming notes, the four notes of this motif can be read as “D. Sch.;” Shostakovich uses this motif in several of his works.)

By 1960, Shostakovich was so thoroughly restored to favor that he was asked to accept a position as the head of the Composers’ Union. In order to accept the position, he had to join the Communist Party, which he did with great reluctance. His eighth string quartet, written later that year, was dedicated to “the victims of fascism and war,” but its use of the “D. Sch.” motto has led many to interpret it as his response to his political denunciations and forced membership in the Communist Party.

Shostakovich never rejected all aspects of Russian/Soviet rule. He had talked for many years about wanting to write a piece in honor of Vladimir Lenin, and finally did so in 1961, with his twelfth symphony, “The Year 1917.” And in 1962, he accepted an appointment as a delegate in the Supreme Soviet, the national legislature.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 "Babi Yaar"

He returned to potentially dangerous musical territory with the 1962 thirteenth symphony, “Babi Yar,” a massive work for orchestra and male chorus. The texts were poems by Jewish poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the topic of the piece was a Nazi massacre of Ukrainian Jews. More broadly, though, the symphony was addressing anti-Semitism—a delicate subject in the Soviet Union—and indirectly, it was a condemnation of some aspects of Soviet life. Yevtushenko’s poems, while never officially banned, were quite controversial. Nikita Khrushchev threatened to stop the premiere performance; when it went on, the government box in the theater was unoccupied.

By this point in his life, Shostakovich suffered from several chronic medical problems, caused by a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. He was increasingly obsessed with his own mortality. That was reflected in the 1969 fourteenth symphony, in which a soprano and bass sang settings of several poems on the theme of death. The symphony is deeply moving, but bleak, and it offers no thoughts of consolation or redemption.

Shostakovich died of lung cancer on August 9, 1975. In 1979, a book called Testimony was published; it was edited by Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov, who claimed that it was Shostakovich’s memoir, dictated to him in a series of interviews. The book claims that many of Shostakovich’s works include coded anti-Soviet messages, but its authenticity has always been very much in question.

We have focused primarily on Shostakovich’s symphonies, but there are other important works to mention. He wrote fifteen string quartets; #8 and #15 are among the most popular. There are six concertos, two each for piano, violin (#1, #2), and cello (#1, #2). And there is a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano; it’s a two-and-a-half hour work that includes one prelude and fugues in each of the twelve major and the twelve minor keys.

The Great Courses offers an audio course on Shostakovich’s music, taught by Robert Greenberg. Wendy Lesser’s Music for Silenced Voices tells the story of Shostakovich’s life, as seen through his string quartets.