Dmitry Shostakovich

1906 1975

Dmitry Shostakovich



Shostakovich is regarded as one of the greatest symphonists of the mid-twentieth century. His works range from broadly tonal and in the Romantic tradition to atonal, chromatic and modernist. Political measures cut short his potentially exceptional operatic corpus and although his work was increasingly censored and needed to stay in line with the Soviet approval, it was also marked by irony and very often, his real sentiments are cryptic. He wrote symphonies on a grand scale, ballets, film scores and incidental theatre music of fascinating diversity, string quartets, concertos and vocal works that are astoundingly impressive.

Dmitry Shostakovich was born to well-educated middle class parents and grew up in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg in privileged conditions. His parents and older sister all played music at home and the young Shostakovich saw an opera for the first time - Rimsky-Korsakov’sTale of Tsar Saltan in 1915, aged 9. It was at this stage that he took up piano and after a year he was already able to play simple Mozart and Haydn pieces and compose and improvise illustrated pieces, which he performed with a running commentary. In 1919, he was admitted to the Petrograd Conservatory, with the help of his mother who had studied there in her youth. In the conservatory he learned harmony, orchestration, fugue, form, composition, counterpoint, history, violin and conducting. During the term time of his study years, he earned money playing piano for silent movies.

He developed a love for travelling after being sent to Crimea to recuperate after contracting tuberculosis during the summers of his conservatory study, a place he returned to many times to enjoy his leisure time throughout his life. By 1925, Shostakovich’s First Symphony was completed and it catapulted him to fame. The performance on the 12 May 1925 was the first ever radio broadcast from the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic. It was the first symphony composed in the Soviet Union to become a standard repertoire piece in the West and it brought Shostakovich letters of congratulation from composers such as Berg and Milhaud.

The following ten years were dictated by the need to earn money to support himself and his mother. Had it not been for the harsh economic times, Shostakovich may have entered into theavant-garde route like many of his contemporaries in the West, but from 1928, he took on many commissions for incidental music, film scores and ballets, all of which conform to their requirement in style and character, in addition to his sporadic piano performances, publications and teaching.

Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata of 1934 was his first important piece of large-scale chamber music. It was relatively conservatively written in the 4-movement form and put into practice many of the principles he was accused of neglecting in the infamousPravda article, which was ironically released on the same day that Shostakovich himself was giving a performance of the Cello Sonata.

The premiere of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony took place on the 21st of November 1937 and was a scene of a remarkable public reaction. Members of the audience were openly weeping during the slow movement and the symphony's ending was met with a half-hour long ovation. It was a mix of emotions that during Soviet times were not easily expressed openly: triumph as the composer revived his position as a leading Soviet artist and grief and despair at the height of Stalin's Great Purge.

In 1941, the Nazis invaded Russia and later that year, Shostakovich completed his Seventh Symphony. When it was premiered a few months later, its propagandist messages were clearly perceived. On the day that Hitler had proclaimed that Leningrad would fall, the premiere of the symphony took place in Leningrad itself, making use of the city’s few remaining musicians as well as others called in from the front. It was broadcast and shown to German troops and subsequently, anti-fascist and communist sympathisers in the West began to take up Shostakovich’s cause. The symphony commemorated the suffering of the people of Leningrad, hence its nickname, theLeningrad.

Shostakovich showed an interest in Jewish themes, even before the anti-Semitic sentiment in Soviet Russia. In 1948, he wrote a song cycle,From Jewish Poetry, initially intending for them to be chronicling the difficulties of being Jewish in Soviet Russia, however in order to disguise the intended theme, he added three more songs about the positivity of Jewish life under the Soviet Regime. The piece was not allowed to be performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953 however, along with the violin concerto and various other unapproved works.

The Tenth Symphony emerged after an eight-year gap in Shostakovich’s symphonic writing. The symphony was ‘an attempt to convey human emotions and passions.’ Emotions such as mourning and commemorating were dangerous to express explicitly in these times and moreover, in Shostakovich’s music there is often a fine line between genuine and ironic statements - therefore the true message of the Tenth Symphony will always be debated.

Later on, Shostakovich turned to 12-tone composition and in 1968, wrote his Twelfth String Quartet around the 12-note themes, although he never applied the technique in the style of the Second Viennese School. Shostakovich andBenjamin Britten were close friends. Britten visited Russia several times and Shostakovich attended the Aldeburgh Festival that Britten and his associates had set up in England. The two men died within one year of each other. In Shostakovich's last 10 years, he composed at least one significant work per year and very often composed on the theme of death.

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