Dmitri Shostakovich

(12 September [25 September -New Style] 1906, St. Petersburg - 9 August 1975, Moscow)


Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was a Russian composer and pianist, renowned particularly for his 15 symphonies, numerous chamber works, and concerti. His works are among the greatest examples of these classic forms from the 20th century.

At the age of 9, Dmitri started studying piano with his mother, after which he displayed significant musical talent. His memory was remarkable as he would sometimes play what his mother had played at the previous lesson. In 1918, he wrote a funeral march in memory of two leaders of the Kadet party, murdered by Bolshevik sailors.
At the age of 13, he enrolled the Petrograd Conservatory, at that time headed by Alexander Glazunov, who monitored Shostakovich's progress closely and promoted him. After spending a year in the class of Elena Rozanova, Shostakovich studied piano under Leonid Nikolayev, composition with Maximilian Steinberg, and counterpoint and fugue with Nikolay Sokolov, with whom he later became friends. He also attended Alexander Ossovsky's history of music classes. Shostakovich's first major musical achievement was the First Symphony (premiered in 1926), written as his graduation piece at the age of 19. In 1927 he participated in the Chopin International Competition for Pianists in Warsaw where he received an honorable mention. He made no subsequent attempt to pursue the career of a virtuoso, confining his public appearances as a pianist to performances of his own works.

After the piano competition Shostakovich met the conductor Bruno Walter, who was so impressed by the composer's First Symphony that he conducted it at its Berlin premiere later that year. Leopold Stokowski was equally impressed and gave the work its U.S. premiere the following year in Philadelphia and also made the work's first recording, soon after, achieving worldwide currency. The symphony’s stylistic roots were numerous; the influence of composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith (and, avowedly, Shostakovich’s contemporary Sergey Prokofiev) is clearly discernible.

In 1927 he wrote his Second Symphony (subtitled To October), a patriotic piece with a great pro-Soviet choral finale. Due to its experimental nature, as with the subsequent Third Symphony, the pieces were not critically acclaimed with the enthusiasm granted to the First. A strong influence on Shostakovich's music from the Fourth Symphony onwards was the music of Gustav Mahler, introduced to him by his friend, Sollertinsky.

The cultural climate in the Soviet Union was remarkably free at that time; even the music of Igor Stravinsky and Alban Berg, then in the avant-garde, was played. Béla Bartók and Hindemith visited Russia to perform their own works, and Shostakovich openly experimented with avant-garde trends. His satiric opera The Nose (composed from 1927 to 1928), based on Nikolay Gogol’s story Nos, displayed a comprehensive awareness of what was new in Western music, although already it seems as if the satire is extended to the styles themselves, for the avant-garde sounds are contorted with wry humor. Shostakovich composed his first film score for the 1929 silent movie, The New Babylon, set during the 1871 Paris Commune.

In the period spent working at TRAM, a proletarian youth theater, Shostakovich composed his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (composed 1930-1932, revised and retitled Katerina Izmaylova), which had its premiere in 1934.

In 1936, Shostakovich fell from official favor. It has been said that Stalin’s anger at what he heard when he attended a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936 precipitated the official condemnation of the opera and of its creator. The reason for this was because at that time Joseph Stalin inaugurated his First Five-Year Plan, an iron hand fastened on Soviet culture, and Shostakovich's music wasn't nationalistic at all.

The year began with a series of attacks on him in Pravda, in particular an article entitled, "Muddle Instead of Music". The article condemned Lady Macbeth as formalist, "coarse, primitive and vulgar". Consequently, commissions began to fall off, and his income fell by about three quarters. Even Soviet music critics who had praised the opera were forced to recant in print, saying they "failed to detect the shortcomings of Lady Macbeth as pointed out by Pravda". Shortly after, both the opera and the still unperformed Symphony No. 4 (1935-1936) were withdrawn.

The composer’s next major work was his Symphony No. 5 (1937), which was described in the press as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” A trivial, dutifully “optimistic” work might have been expected; what emerged was compounded largely of serious, even sombre and elegiac music, presented with a compelling directness that scored an immediate success with both the public and the authorities. With his Symphony No. 5, he forged his style that he used in his future compositions. That same year he became a teacher of composition at the Leningrad Conservatory.

In the year the Germans attacked the Soviet Union (1941), he composed his Symphony No. 7. The work was greatly received by the public and authorities and achieved a quick fame. Because of the German attack, Shostakovich was relocated and from 1943, he settled in Moscow as a teacher of composition at the conservatory, and from 1945 he also taught at the Leningrad Conservatory.

Shostakovich’s works written during the mid-1940s contain some of his best music, especially the Symphony No. 8 (1943), the Piano Trio (1944), and the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1947–48). His personal influence was reduced by the termination of his teaching activities at both the Moscow and Leningrad conservatories. Yet he was not completely intimidated, and, in his String Quartet No. 4 (1949) and especially his Quartet No. 5 (1951), he offered a splendid rejoinder to those who would have had him renounce completely his style and musical integrity. His Symphony No. 10, composed in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, flew in the face of Zhdanovism (a proeminent Soviet theoretician who attacked and disgraced the leading figures of Soviet music, including Shostakovich), yet, like his Symphony No. 5 of 16 years earlier, compelled acceptance by sheer quality and directness.

During his extended tour of western Europe, including Italy where he already had been elected an honorary member of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, he received an honorary doctorate of music at the University of Oxford in Great Britain. In 1966 he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal. After Prokofiev’s death in 1953, he was the undisputed head of Russian music. Since his own death his music has been the subject of furious contention between those upholding the Soviet view of the composer as a sincere Communist, and those who view him as a closet dissident.

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 piano works include two solo 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 composed for The Gadfly.

Here  you can find a list of compositions by Dmitri Shostakovich.