Dmitri Shostakovich - Biography


Dimitri Shostakovich was born on September 25th 1906 in St. Petersburg and died in Moscow on August 9th 1975. His father was an engineer, his mother a pianist of professional level. Shostakovich became a skilled pianist at an early age. In his early adolescence he lived though the most horrific period of the Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg now secularized as Petrograd. He suffered from malnutrition and in fact his health was never robust. He was attending during this period the Petrograd Conservatory where the famous composer Alexander Glazunov was the music director and Shostakovich was his star pupil. Shostakovich composition teacher was the eminent composer Maximilan Steinberg the son in law of Rimsky Korsakov. Shostakovich intention at the time was to become a concert pianist and entered the Chopin completion in Warsaw at eighteen. The same year he was to compose his superb First Symphony a remarkably mature work which by its tart inventive orchestral texture can be immediately identified as Shostakovich. It had a successful premiere in Leningrad (formerly Petrograd) under Malko and within the year had its Western European premiere in Germany under Bruno Walter. At this point Shostakovich permanent direction was now as a composer. He continued to study composition until the late 1920’s and produced the opera The Nose based on the tale of Gogol and for the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution composed his Second Symphony “Dedication to October” a choral programmatic work. Shostakovich during this time also became involved in the scoring of early sound movies in the booming Soviet movie business.


Shostakovich unlike most of his Russian colleagues was completely a product of the Soviet system and was cultivated and supported by that system. Before Stalin’s total control of Soviet society there was a significant avant garde in the Soviet arts. Shostakovich Third Symphony was a programmatic choral work “The First of May”. Shostakovich next opera Lady Macbeth of the District of Mtzensk was initially a great success when premiered in 1934. It reached America within a year in a celebrated performance under Artur Rodzinki. But there was to be a problem the starkly expressionistic score about a murderous adulteress that also had a very graphic orchestral interlude that utilizes a trombone glissando to simulate a sexual act occurring offstage. This outraged a Soviet music critic, one Josef Stalin who stormed out of the theatre. Pravda the official organ of the government condemned the work and severely criticized the composer for embracing decadent Western art. The opera was shelved for over twenty years and was revised in a toned down version Kateriana Izmaylova. Shostakovich very challenging Fourth Symphony written a year or so later was never to make it out of rehearsal. Shostakovich career looked like it may be over at thirty. He revived with his heroic Fifth Symphony that was premiered in 1937 and was soon to become an international success particularly in America. He humbly said that the work represented “A Soviets artist creative response to justified criticism”. He quickly afterwards composed a popular Sixth Symphony and a well regarded Piano Quintet.


The Soviet Union after entering a pact with Germany in August of 1939 was to suffer a massive invasion by the Germans in June of 1941. Leningrad was blockaded and was to suffer grievously with hundreds of thousands dying of starvation and disease during the siege. Initially Shostakovich was to stay in Leningrad and serve as a fire brigade warden. He was then evacuated to the temporary Soviet capital of Kubishev far inland. He had stated his huge (75 minute) Seventh Symphony “Leningrad” in Leningrad and completed in early 1942 in Kubishev; the work has a infamous portion in the first movement where there is a graphic representation of the advancing German Army characterized by a banal military march repeated many times increasing in loudness until finally beaten back by a Russian counter surge represented by a folk tune. This music was microfilmed out of Russia and performed with great success all around the world. The American premiere was broadcast on a nationwide radio hookup under Toscanini. Shostakovich Eighth Symphony written two years later was finer work but couldn’t compete with the propaganda affect of the Seventh.


Shostakovich was exploring the String Quartet during the Forties and wrote the four of his fifteen from 1938 to 1949. The quartet was to offer him a more intimate means of expression and was to become his medium to express the most private of his musical thoughts. Shostakovich was expected to write a heroic Ninth Symphony in the tradition of Beethoven but instead wrote a short work which had elements of circus music in it and seemed to be sarcastic and impudent. This was to cost Shostakovich dearly when he was to fall prey to the Soviet Cultural Czar Zhdanov who in 1948 severely criticized the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev ,Myakovsky and Khachaturian for formalism and decadence and not offering an art that was popular and could be appreciated by the Soviet worker. At the height of the second Stalin reign of terror such a condemnation could put you in a gulag; in Shostakovich case it caused a cessation of performances of his work and avoidance by fearful colleagues. To make amends he attended a peace conference in New York the following year sponsored by pro Soviet groups in the U.S., to his great humiliation he had to condemn the music of the contemporary giants Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Hindemith when responding to a question at a press conference.


Shostakovich avoided writing a symphony for eight years and in order to steer clear of the government wrote patriotic cantatas like Song of the Forests and the Sun Shines on our Motherland. He was to compose during this period a remarkable set of piano pieces the 24 Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 along with a Fifth Quartet.


The death of Stalin in 1953 had a liberating affect on Shostakovich as it did for many artists in the Soviet Union. The direct consequence was his great Tenth Symphony that has a brutal headlong Scherzo which Shostakovich was later to say was a portrait of Stalin. He also released the First Violin Concerto written for Oistrakh in the late forties but withheld for five years. He was continued to write a number of film scores and also an operetta Cheryomushki. The Eleventh Symphony The Year 1905 was programmatic work which represented incident’s in the failed revolution of that year ,a Twelfth probably his least distinguished symphony was Dedicated to the Memory of Lenin .The 1960s saw the composition of seven masterful String Quartets and to include a Second Violin Concerto and a Cello Concerto written for Rostropovich in 1959. Shostakovich was to get in trouble again with the government when he composed his Symphony # Thirteen” Baba Yar “which is in fact a symphonic song cycle written to the poetry of Yevtushenko and gruesomely commenting on the mass murder of Jews in the Ukraine during the Second World War. The Soviet government was particularly incensed over the implication of Ukraine collaboration in the massacre, this particularly angered the less then philo-semitic premier Khrushchev who was Ukrainian, the work was quickly withdrawn. His next Symphony # 14 was another song cycle reminiscent of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” and set to distinguished texts on the subject of death .Shostakovich in his mid sixties was plagued with heart disease and an advancing cancer undoubtedly caused by his chain smoking. His Fifteenth Symphony is an enigmatic work with quotes from Rossini and Wagner it has a first movement with high wind instruments and percussion giving the effect of a vast toy shop. Shostakovich was to complete a Violin Sonata, three additional String Quartets and a Viola Sonata works of great sorrow and intensity. He was to complete an additional Cello Concerto for Rostropovich, and a group of songs with texts by Michelangelo. Shostakovich was to finally succumb from his ailments on August 8th 1975.


Shostakovich reputation outside Russia during his life had many ups and downs. In German speaking countries it was rarely performed. In England it was popular. In the U.S it was enormously popular in the 1940’s but its popularity declined during the cold war 1950’s when Shostakovich was often viewed as a fervent communist. Even more damaging was the disdain he was held by musical intellectuals and the Avant Garde. Loud neo romantic music in praise of Lenin was anachronistic in the world of Stockhausen and Boulez. There was a prominent exception in Benjamin Britten who established a close musical friendship with him. The discovery of his chamber music in the west raised his profile and showed a subtle side to his musical personality mostly unknown in the west. The event that changes the West’s view of Shostakovich were the memoirs that were a series of dialogues with Russian author Simon Volkov published as Testimony that showed him to be a man in torment and rather than being a Soviet apologist he was a subtle dissident and what seems on the face bombastic empty propagandist musical rhetoric where in fact meant to be taken as ironic. The book was denounced as a fabrication by the Soviet musical establishment. In the post Soviet era the book has gained credibility. Since then Shostakovich life has been examined many times and was even played by Ben Kingsley in a movie entitled Testament. The story of how a great artist survived under a totalitarian system and survived a horrific war seems to have great resonance. One should not be misled into thinking that his conflict with Soviet officials made Shostakovich anything less than an ardent Russian patriot who had a deep spiritual connection to his country. Physical exile would be impossible for him. His reputation as a great composer is now secure.  

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