Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (Russian: Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович, 25 September 1906 St. Petersburg – 9 August 1975 Moscow) has been widely celebrated as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. His career unfolded during the Soviet era and was marked by a tension between his own artistic inclinations toward experimentation and the Communist Party’s demand for traditional sound-forms and Socialist Realism. He was a prolific composer who demonstrated a mastery of a diverse number of musical genres, and in his lifetime achieved great fame both inside and outside of Russia. His compositions, many of which were written on the “grand scale” and recall Beethoven and Mahler, encompass a remarkable emotional range, from the witty and humorous to the giddy and bizarre to the depressive and tragic – sometimes all in the same piece. Music scholars generally agree that his Symphony No. 10 is among the greatest of symphonies. His later works such as his Symphonies Nos. 14 and 15 and String Quartet No. 15 are experimental in style and are marked by moving meditations on death. Many of his compositions are part of the repertoire of orchestras worldwide, and in the present day he has become the most popular of all twentieth century Russian composers played in the West.
- 1 Childhood 1906-1919
- 2 Student years 1919-1925
- 3 Growing maturity 1926-1931
- 4 Themes of Love 1932-1936
- 5 Stalin 1936
- 6 Reversals of fortune 1937-1940
- 7 World War II 1941-1945
- 8 Increasing Political Tension 1945-1952
- 9 Cultural Thaw 1953-1958
- 10 Illness and Final Years 1958-1975
- 11 Testimony
- 12 References
Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on 25 September 1906. His forebears on both sides were from Siberia. His family was close-knit and down-to-earth and he enjoyed a happy childhood. “The atmosphere in our house was very free and liberal,” an aunt recalled. “It was always full of people, and there was much laughter and entertainment.” His father, an engineer, sang and his mother played the piano, and Shostakovich was fascinated with music from an early age, as he later recalled: “When our neighbors played quartets I would put my ear to the wall and listen.”
His inborn talent for making music revealed itself for the first time when he was eight years old and his mother began giving him piano lessons. Not only did he have perfect pitch but his musical memory was as consummate as Mozart’s: having heard a piece once, he could reproduce it note-perfect from memory. He began composing music at the age of nine, the same year he was enrolled at a music school. In 1917, at age 11, Shostakovich commemorated recent events with his “Funeral March in Memory of the Victims of the Revolution”. He was studying Beethoven’s symphony scores closely by age 13, by which time he had completed up to thirty pieces of his own, including an opera and a ballet.  He left secondary schooling without a degree at the age of 14, having decided to dedicate his life to music.
Shostakovich’s character in his teens set the manner for his adulthood: thin, with restless eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, he was quiet and introspective, sensitive and serious and usually in deep concentration; “all sharp corners, tense, bright, and unkempt as a sparrow” was how one close friend described the youthful Shostakovich. But he also had a keen sense of fun and enjoyed games such as charades and word-play. Another early friend recalled his “large vocabulary”, “innate humor” and “amazingly lively mind”. A third friend added to the description: “He had a splendid head of light-brown hair, usually neatly brushed but sometimes ‘poetically’ dishevelled with a mischievous, unruly lock falling over his forehead.” This mix of brooding, introspective depth and giddy, mischievous humor would manifest itself in many of his later compositions.
In the autumn of 1919 he enrolled at the Petrograd Conservatory to study piano and composition. (His home city was renamed from St. Petersburg in 1914.) On the basis of Shostakovich’s entrance audition (at which he played his own piano compositions), the director of the Conservatory, respected composer Alexander Glazunov, described Shostakovich presciently as the most gifted student he had ever admitted to the school.
Student years 1919-1925
Shostakovich proved to be a diligent and conscientious student, a craftsman. One of his teachers noted his “maturity beyond his years”. Composers who left an especially significant mark on him were Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky, and he also studied more recent composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith. His first composition to be given a catalogue number was his Scherzo in F-sharp Minor, op. 1 (1919). He performed his own music in public for the first time, including his Prelude for Piano in G Minor, at an exhibition of paintings by famed artist Boris Kustodiyev, on 8 May 1920. Over the next two years he completed such early works as his Eight Preludes, op. 2 (1920) and Three Fantastic Dances, op. 5 (1922). He impressed audiences at school concerts with a series of piano recitals of Bach, Beethoven, and other old masters in 1922 and 1923, with one music critic recognizing in Shostakovich the “serene confidence of genius”.
But Shostakovich was fated to endure much private torment. His father passed away of pneumonia on 24 February 1922, and Shostakovich, aged 15, composed his Suite for Two Pianos, op. 6, dedicated to his memory. His own bout with pneumonia in 1923 was an early manifestation of the ill health he would frequently suffer throughout his lifetime. After his father’s death his family experienced great financial hardship, and Shostakovich was forced to find employment playing piano accompaniment to silent films at various cinemas, a job he considered “hack work”, between 1923 and 1926.  (“Many music lovers began to go to the theater where he worked just to hear his brilliant improvisations,” a friend recalled.) Money remained tight throughout these years, and Shostakovich felt the pressure; his godmother remarked on how “very pale and emaciated” he looked from “lack of nutrition”. In letters written during this period Shostakovich described his situation: “My mood is awful right now . . . the darkness is surrounding me . . . Sometimes I start screaming. Just screaming in fear. All the doubts, all the problems, all the darkness suffocates me.”  Sometimes he didn’t even have enough money to buy a stamp for one of his letters. Yet his studies continued (which included Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges), as did his composition.
The eighteen-year-old Shostakovich completed his Symphony No. 1, op. 10, on 1 July 1925, after at least a year’s work. Composed as his graduation requirement, it turned out to be his breakthrough piece into the professional world of the concert hall. Early in 1926 the panel of the State Music Publishing House accepted his First Symphony, Two Pieces for string octet, op. 11, and Three Fantastic Dances for publication. The First Symphony is, generally speaking, traditional in structure, with echoes of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. Its tonality; its basis in melody; its swift interplay of opposing moods (playful, humorous, brooding and troubled, lyrical and romantic, boisterous); as well as its vigorous coda of “heroic striving” are all characteristic of the later Shostakovich. The First Symphony premiered at the Leningrad Philharmonic Hall on 12 May 1926 and was a great success; the audience demanded that the second movement be played again as an encore. His mother described in a letter the “long and tumultuous ovation” her son received. Remarkable for being such an early work, his First Symphony is generally considered one of his great compositions. The First Symphony quickly swept through the world; Bruno Walter conducted its performance in Berlin in May 1927, soon to be followed by premieres in Vienna, England, and America in 1928. Composers such as Alban Berg and Darius Milhaud wrote favorable notices of it, the latter marvelling at the youthful age of the composer. Although Shostakovich was a true “overnight success” on the world’s stage, his subsequent career in the Soviet Union would undergo stunning reversals of good and bad fortune over the next two decades.
Growing maturity 1926-1931
Shostakovich was a post-graduate student at the Leningrad Conservatory from 1926 to 1929. (His home city was renamed from Petrograd in 1924.) He lived on a student grant, and earned extra money by playing the piano in concerts, and teaching at the Central Music Technical School. When he finished his Piano Sonata No. 1, op. 12, on 20 October 1926, friends noticed that he had worked so hard that blood was left on the piano keys. But his hopes of becoming an international concert pianist came to an end in January 1927, when he travelled to Warsaw as part of a Soviet team to compete in the First International Chopin Piano Competition, and was mortified when he failed to win a prize. He attributed his mere honorable mention to an attack of appendicitis; his appendix was indeed removed later in the year.
Two months later his money woes were temporarily alleviated when he was commissioned to write a symphony by the Propaganda and Education Department of the Musical Sector of the State Publishing House. His Symphony No. 2, To October, op. 14, is a choral symphony in one movement of two parts, its second part set to a patriotic text commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is an experimental work in structure and sound, using polytonality, polyrhythms and dissonance, and even a factory whistle. Its five minute long introductory instrumental passage of confused, undulating string voices playing pianissimo at hypnotic Largo tempo (a symphony in search of a theme) sounds strikingly contemporary even in 2007 (if not 2017). That the first part was experimental was representative of the legacy of V.I. Lenin, whose promotion of artistic freedom had allowed for the frequent performance of Western music (such as Alban Berg and Bela Bartók) between 1917-1927; that the second part used a patriotic text was meant to placate the state authorities, as this was the period of Joseph Stalin’s rise to power as head of the Communist Party. The Second Symphony premiered in Leningrad on 5 November 1927 to an enthusiastic reception; Shostakovich was called up on stage four times, and the subsequent critical reviews were favorable. Although the remarkable instrumental first part has nothing distinctly Russian about it, it is due to the Russian character of the second, more traditional, choral part that his Second Symphony didn’t enter the international repertoire.
Shostakovich’s next work, his satirical opera The Nose, op. 15, based on Gogol’s surreal short story and completed in the summer of 1928, was advertised as an “experimental spectacle”. Partly inspired by Berg’s Wozzeck, its irreverent story poked fun of modern Russian society and its whimsicality (both musical and narrative) was destined to evoke heated criticism. Following its premiere on 18 January 1930, one reviewer deemed the production of The Nose “an anarchist’s hand bomb.” Shostakovich was attacked in the newspapers for his “musical hooliganism” and harassed by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians for his “modernism”.  The Nose lasted for only 14 performances. Shostakovich later explained his reasoning behind The Nose: “I wanted to have some fun.”
His Symphony No. 3, The First of May, op. 20, his graduate school requirement, premiered in Leningrad on 21 January 1930. Like his previous symphony, it is a one movement choral symphony, but is more immediately accessible in musical style, lyrical and tuneful. The subject matter of the symphony’s final part, the choral setting commemorating the national holiday of “workers day”, was meant to appease the state authorities, who had begun to pay closer attention to the world of the arts. Yet Shostakovich at this time couldn’t resist experimentation: unlike a traditional symphony, which is built of a development and repetition of themes, the structure of the Third Symphony is episodic, a vivid, idiosyncratic kaleidoscope of changing themes (until the simple, attractive, moderato choral part). Accordingly, the state authorities welcomed the patriotic symphony with only cautious enthusiasm, and it has been performed only sparingly ever since.
Although his works were reaching the public, nevertheless Shostakovich still suffered from an ongoing money crunch. To earn a living between the years 1929 and 1931, he wrote three scores for silent films and five works of incidental music for theater productions, also played the piano in concerts, and taught at the Leningrad Choreographic Teknikum. Two ballets he composed as works for hire, The Golden Age, op. 22, which premiered in October 1930, and The Bolt, op. 27, which premiered in April 1931, received scathing reviews for their uninspired scenarios, failed at the box office and quickly closed. However, Shostakovich salvaged entertaining music from both to create the Suite from The Golden Age, op. 22a (1930) and the Suite from The Bolt, op. 27a (1931), both of which entered the international repertory.
Friends of Shostakovich remarked on his appearance and demeanor in this time period, his mid to late 20s: “thin, worn out, looking bad”, “fragile and nervously agile”, “scrawny, pale”. Some friends nicknamed him “Shtozhtakovich”, which translates to “What’s-the-matter-ovich?” The painter Nikolai Sokolov observed that “his gait was nervous and rapid, as were the constant movement of his hands.” Many people throughout his life remarked on his dramatic mood swings: “He would go quiet and limp, then, just as suddenly, he would switch on again and become lively and active.” When he was active, he could be “jolly”, with an “abundant sense of humor” and “bent for tomfoolery”, as his friends explained. Throughout it all he was always “polite” and “modest” and “absolutely lacking in arrogance.” For his entire life he treated everyone with the same courtesy, regardless of rank. He had no expensive tastes, nor did he pay undue attention to his clothes.
The tightly wound Shostakovich found temporary relaxation by playing chess and card games such as solitaire and poker; riding a bicycle; spending time with animals (he would always own dogs and cats); but most of all he was an ardent fan of professional soccer (he frequently went to matches, and throughout his entire life he noted down weekly scores in a “scorebook”; and he once went so far as to sign up, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to act as a referee). He loved reading fiction (favorite authors included Gogol, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky), could take in a page of prose at a glance, and was able to recite whole pages of various literary works from memory. And yet, “I find it more difficult to rest than to do anything else,” he remarked in an interview in the early 1930s. “Only when I am up to my ears in work do I feel well.”
Whoever saw him at work was astounded by his easy gift for composition. “He wrote out his music in full score straight away,” his aunt explained. “He just sat down, wrote out whatever he heard in his head.” A friend concurred: “He never bothered with a piano score and usually didn’t make any preliminary sketches.” Another friend went so far as to say that “to observe him writing . . . was like a miracle. Placing a large sheet of manuscript paper in from of him, with hardly an interruption and practically no corrections or rough copies, Shostakovich created his new scores. They were created in entirety and instantaneously.” Regardless of his ease of composition, Shostakovich never considered a single one of his works a sure success. For his entire life, even at the end, an ever-anxious Shostakovich became even more acutely anxious, to the point of nausea, right before a premiere performance of one of his works.
Themes of Love 1932-1936
After a five-year courtship, Shostakovich, 25, married Nina Vasilyevna Varzar, 22, a researcher in experimental physics, in a civil ceremony on 13 May 1932. They lived with his mother in a three-room apartment in Leningrad. Between 1932 and 1935 Shostakovich continued to write film scores and theater music in order to earn a living. One of his most significant compositions in this time was his Piano Concerto in C Minor, op. 35 (1933), a lovely, sunny work expressing his keen sense of humor with its fleeting parodic quotations of Beethoven and Haydn, among others; it was also scored unconventionally with a major part for a trumpet. Meanwhile his fame kept growing. A concert devoted to his music in Moscow in April 1933 was described by the newspaper Sovetskoye Iskusstvo as “the greatest event of the musical season.” Shostakovich performed his Piano Concerto at its premiere with the Leningrad Philharmonic in October 1933; it was received as a great success and swiftly entered the international repertoire.
His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, op. 29 (alternate title, Katerina Izmailova), was completed in 1932 after two years of work and premiered in Leningrad on 22 January 1934. A tale of doomed love, it was designed in the tradition of the nineteenth century grand opera of Verdi and Strauss. A critical success, it ran for two years, was broadcast nationwide on the radio no less than five times, and by the end of 1936 versions had premiered in the United States, England, Argentina, Switzerland, and other places around the world. While critics spoke of it in such terms as “remarkable, deep, and brilliantly orchestrated”, it also garnered controversy in Soviet Russia and elsewhere for what was considered its too expressive style. Prokofiev, for example, remarked of its blatantly sensual tone: “The waves of lust just keep coming and coming.” An American reviewer called it “pornographic music.” However, the prevailing tone in the press in both Russia and abroad was exemplified by such newspaper headlines as: “A Triumph for Soviet Music” and “A Brilliant Opera”.
With his earnings from Lady Macbeth Shostakovich and his wife moved into a new private apartment early in 1934. He was now a major public figure in the world of music in his homeland. Newspapers routinely reported on him; and he was prevailed upon to be a member of various official committees, conferences, and organizations. In 1934 he was elected a deputy of the October District in Leningrad, the first of many political posts he occupied throughout his lifetime, whether he liked it or not.
His private life, however, had its ongoing tensions. In May 1934 he fell in love with Yelena Konstantinovsky, a 20-year-old university student. His Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor, op. 40, was composed during the time when he and his wife Nina had split up in the summer of 1934. Classical in form and simpler in style than his previous works, the Cello Sonata is for the most part a reflective piece, with moments of melancholy. Early in 1935 Nina consented to a divorce, but he immediately remarried her when it was discovered that she was pregnant. Their first child, Galina, a daughter, was born 30 May 1936.
A major turning point in Shostakovich’s life was the day Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s self-styled “Great Leader”, attended a performance of Lady Macbeth in Moscow on 26 January 1936. Shostakovich was present in the theater and looked, in the words of a friend, “white as a sheet”. He had reason to be anxious. Back in 1932 a resolution issued by the Communist Party – “On the Restructuring of Literary and Artistic Organisations” – had signified the Party’s intent on assuming control of the artistic output of the country. What was welcomed was “Socialist Realism”, which in the world of music meant a tuneful idiom relying on traditional Russian themes immediately accessible to the ordinary worker. What was not welcomed was experimental music (i.e., “formalism”).
Stalin presided over an increasingly totalitarian state in which an estimated 15 million people died between 1929-1936 as a result of his various schemes and programs. Ideological warfare and political terror were two key components in his reign. By the end of the 1930s, up to ten percent of the Soviet population would be in labor camps (gulags), which, according to one European history, became the largest employer in Europe. 1936, the time when Stalin attended Lady Macbeth, was the period of the full flowering of the “Political Terror”, or “Great Purges” of so-called enemies of the state. Between 1936-1939 an estimated seven million more people would be arrested. “Everything has become confused,” writer Boris Pasternak remarked at the time. “Everyone fears something.”
Two days after Stalin heard Lady Macbeth, an unsigned editorial on page 3 in Pravda was headed: “Muddle Instead of Music”. Shostakovich was hammered. “The listener is flabbergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds,” Pravda fulminated. “At the same time as our critics swear by the name of Socialist Realism, in Shostakovich’s work the stage presents us with the coarsest naturalism.” Pravda considered Shostakovich’s work “anti-people music”, “crude”, “leftist muddle”, and would much rather have heard “simple, accessible musical language”. The Pravda editorial was part of a general attack by the Communist Party on supposed defects in Soviet art, and Shostakovich was put at the head of firing line, so to speak. Two more anti-Shostakovich editorials appeared in Pravda in the next two and a half weeks, stressing the same points, such as: “Shostakovich appears as the most prominent representative of tendencies harmful to Soviet art.”
This was the first time in Shostakovich’s life – it would not be the last – when he feared the end of his career. Writer Maxim Gorky noted, “The Pravda article . . . authorize[d] hundreds of talentless people, hacks of all kinds, to persecute Shostakovich.” “To know him was dangerous [now],” explained one Shostakovich biographer. “People literally crossed the street to avoid passing too close to him.” While he held himself in public with – in the words of a friend – “extraordinary control and dignity”, observers at this time (Spring 1936) described the private Shostakovich as “dispirited, confused” and “crushed and distraught”. He was close to suicide, and a friend recalled, “We did not leave him and took turns keeping watch.” Yet through it all Shostakovich was defiant. He promised to a friend, “If they cut off both hands, I will compose music holding the pen in my teeth”
Following his public shaming in the Pravda articles, Shostakovich’s income decreased dramatically. His most recent ballet, The Limpid Stream, op 39, which had premiered in June 1935, vanished from the stage. The newspapers stopped following his career for the next year and a half. His film work decreased, and concert hall orchestras feared playing his compositions. Once again Shostakovich was reduced to living in debt. During this terrible time he began his Four Romances to the Words of A. Pushkin, op. 46, setting music to troubled lines such as these from the third poem, “Premonition”: “Once more the clouds have gathered/above me in the silence/. . . Wearied by life’s storms,/ I calmly await the tempest.”
Amazingly, even though he considered his life in peril, Shostakovich countered the Pravda controversy by continuing on with the composition of his Symphony No. 4, which he completed after about eight months’ work in the spring of 1936. “The authorities tried everything they knew to get me to repent and expiate my sin,” Shostakovich later recalled. “But I refused. I was young then, and had my physical strength. Instead of repenting, I composed my Fourth Symphony.” It is a colossal composition reminiscent of the grandest symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler, with a curious, idiosyncratic structure (episodic and free-flowing, like his Third Symphony, but much more vociferous than that previous work), and requiring the largest orchestra of all fifteen of his symphonies. Just when he was being persecuted for his experimentation, here was his most audacious work yet. Though it is brimming with a bazaar of dazzling ideas, very obviously the symphony demonstrated an aesthetic in direct antithesis to the doctrine of Socialist Realism; there seems to be no way to “follow” this symphony with only one hearing. Much later he described the work as suffering from “grandiosomania”. The premiere of the Fourth Symphony was set for 11 Dec 1936 in Leningrad. After the orchestra had begun rehearsals, Shostakovich, “trembling with fright” (his own words), cancelled the performance and withdrew the symphony from circulation. His close friend Issak Glikman later recalled how a closed-door meeting with state authorities had decided the issue. The Fourth Symphony would not be performed during Stalin’s lifetime. It remained hidden away in a drawer for twenty-five years.
Shostakovich had ever more reasons to fear the authorities. His friends, colleagues, and even extended family members had begun to disappear around him, victims of Stalin’s “purges” of alleged political dissidents. For the next seventeen years of his working life Shostakovich, living in the shadow of the Great Terror, had to remain very careful what he composed. But instead of smothering his own personal voice, he relied on secret strategies to retain his dignity and self-respect, using musical encryption and hidden programs to express his deepest ideas and feelings. “From this point on, there will be quite a few musical hints embedded in his works,” explains one Shostakovich biographer. “Only a small number have been discovered and the main research in this area lies ahead.” Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, one of Shostakovich’s closest friends, described Shostakovich’s symphonies as “a secret history of Russia” (i.e., they are encoded with hidden meanings).
Reversals of fortune 1937-1940
In 1937 Shostakovich returned to teaching (composition and orchestration) at Leningrad Conservatory, and wrote two more film scores to help pay the bills. His Symphony No. 5, op. 47, was completed in the summer of 1937 and premiered in Leningrad on 21 November 1937, his first new work for the concert hall in over a year. He described its subject as “the suffering of man, and all-conquering optimism.” Wisely, he designed it to be traditional in sound and form and immediately accessible to the so-called mass Soviet ear, and the audience received it with rapturous applause that lasted half an hour. Communist Party officials found his Fifth Symphony uncontroversial, and it became Shostakovich’s greatest critical success yet. Pravda now remarked favorably on “the grandiose vistas of the tragically tense Fifth Symphony with its philosophical search.” The newspaper Izvesta gushed: “Glory to our age for showering the world with such an abundance of great sounds and thoughts!” Welcoming his return to favorability, Shostakovich issued a public statement with the intent of reassuring the authorities: “There is nothing more honorable for a composer than to create works for and with the people.” However, “The ovations that now cascaded over Shostakovich did not turn his head in the slightest degree,” his friend Issak Glikman recalled. “He steadfastly maintained his customary reserve, his dignified pose.”
The Fifth Symphony is unquestionably one of Shostakovich’s masterworks. Fitting into the genre of the “heroic symphony”, the Fifth, in contradistinction to his two previous efforts, has a tightly structured and concise shape, with melody rather than experimentation as the fundamental element. In this it is closely related to his First Symphony, yet is less playful and more majestic and noble in style, indicative of both the composer’s maturity and his tenuous political situation at the time. The symphony is often subtitled “A creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism”, but apparently Shostakovich neither inscribed it on the manuscript nor endorsed it subsequently.
With his triumphant Fifth Symphony Shostakovich reasserted the legitimacy of his position as a major figure in the international world of music. The symphony had its premieres in both New York and Paris by June 1938. For the rest of his career, each of his ten symphonies to come, as well as many of his other major works, were premiered in the United States, the United Kingdom, and in various cities of Europe within a year or two of their premieres at home. Today, the Fifth Symphony is perhaps the most popular of all of his symphonies (with Nos. 1 and 10) in the standard international repertoire.
But the flush of triumph proved to be short-lived. “For a whole year after submitting my Fifth Symphony I did almost nothing,” Shostakovich later recalled. Although the Fifth Symphony was performed frequently throughout Soviet Russia, his success didn’t stop the pressure, stress, and disorientation caused by ongoing critical persecution in some quarters, though he endured it all publicly with his customary dignity. But his inner distress and nervous tension was plain to see by his friends, who remarked on his “restless fidgeting and squirming”. Money remained tight; he continued teaching at Leningrad Conservatory, where he was promoted to Professor before the end of the decade; he performed in concerts; and composed film scores, six of them between 1938-1940. This three year period was marked by both grief and joy. Grief, as friends of his were taken away and shot by Stalin’s secret police. Joy, as on 10 May 1938 his second child was born, a son, Maxim.
His String Quartet No. 1, op. 49, was completed in July 1938 and premiered in Leningrad on 10 October 1938. Classical in structure, relaxed in mood, and with a jolly upbeat ending, it sounds worlds away from the political tensions of the time. Shostakovich’s original subtitle for the pleasant piece was “Springtime”, and as the first movement resembles a tender lullaby, the work may reflect his pleasure with his newborn son. Its premiere in Moscow in November 1938 was an immense success: the entire work was played again as an encore. A review in the Literaturnaya gazeta described it as “a portrait of the age, the rich-toned, perfect voice of the present.” Shostakovich once remarked that the genre of the string quartet “is one of the most difficult musical genres,” but he went on to compose fifteen of them in his lifetime.
In 1939 he was elected a representative to the Leningrad City Council (however, in the words of a recent Shostakovich biographer, “it does not appear to have involved him actively in decision-making or governance”). His Symphony No. 6, op. 54, premiered in Leningrad on 5 November 1939 and was well received by the public (the third movement was encored). However, even though its concise style recalled his First and Fifth Symphonies, and its musical language was the simplest of all of his symphonies thus far, the official response was cool. The startling clash of moods inherent in the symphony sounded too strange for the state authorities. First of all, its lopsided structure (the first movement, Largo, is twice as long as the other two movements put together) was idiosyncratic in itself. The long opening movement is pensive, mysterious, tragic, and melancholy, but the second movement is a charming, playful party atmosphere, and the fast pace of the second movement is accelerated yet further into the giddy, toe-tapping upbeat finale of the third movement. (It is extremely uncommon for a symphony to have consecutive scherzo-like movements.) The newspaper Sovetskaya Ukraina commented in its favorable review: “It is not every composer who would have the audacity to write the finale of a symphony in the rhythm of a polka.” Although there was nothing inherently offensive about the graceful music of each individual movement, its surprising overall structure led the authorities to place the Sixth Symphony on a list of works not suitable for public consumption.
Shostakovich’s next composition for the concert hall, his Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57, which premiered with Shostakovich at the piano in Leningrad on 23 November 1940, was an immense critical and popular success. An audience member described that “A feeling of enormous pleasure and gratitude was on every face. An elderly man did not notice the tear rolling down his cheek.” Pravda celebrated the work as “Lyrically lucid, human and simple . . . unquestionably the best composition of 1940”. Traditional in structure (hence related to his Cello Sonata), the Piano Quintet features echoes of Bach and Handel, Viennese classicism and Beethoven. The gently melancholy mood of its second and fourth movements is Shostakovich’s delicate and quiet side at its expressive best. The Piano Quintet won him his first Stalin Prize, the newly established, highest state prize for outstanding achievement in the arts and science, which brought him the large sum of 100,000 roubles. (Putting that in context, a hospital doctor made 300 roubles a month.)
World War II 1941-1945
Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. Shostakovich volunteered for the army but was rejected. Instead, he joined the Home Guard, and as part of the firefighting brigade kept an eye on the roof of the Moscow Conservatory, watching for air-dropped incendiary bombs. A photograph of Shostakovich in his fireman’s helmet swept through the world as an image of Russian resolve. But his greatest contribution to the war effort was his next composition, which became the most immediately popular work (both at home and abroad) of his lifetime, and made him, at the age of 35, a national hero.
He composed most of his Symphony No. 7, op 60, to the sound of the Nazis shelling Leningrad. He and his family were evacuated to Moscow on 1 October 1941, then two weeks later, east to Kuybishev, where they moved into a two-room apartment. (He wrote in a letter to a friend on 4 January 1942, “Sometimes at nights I don’t sleep, and I weep. The tears flow thick and fast, and bitter.”) He completed his Seventh Symphony on 27 December 1941, and it premiered in Kuybishev on 5 March 1942 and broadcast nationwide on the radio. It was an orchestral work on a large scale, requiring eighty strings and ten extra brass instruments, and, at over seventy minutes in performance time, his longest symphony. Its Moscow premiere on 24 March 1942 was accompanied by air raid sirens sounding outside of the concert hall. Pravda printed a rave review. A “heroic symphony” in which its optimistic last movement looked forward to a Russian victory, the Seventh Symphony became, in the words of a Shostakovich biographer, “one of most potent cultural propaganda symbols of the Great Patriotic War”. During the war, virtually every Soviet city that could played the Seventh Symphony at least once.
The Seventh Symphony became a great rallying cry for Russia’s allies as well. It was played in London in June 1942, then in America on nationwide television by the NBC orchestra in July 1942. Shostakovich was honored on the cover of Time magazine on 20 July 1942; the cover caption ran: “Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad, he heard the chords of victory.” The Seventh Symphony had 62 performances in the United States alone in 1942-1943. But its most dramatic performance took place in Leningrad, where it premiered on 9 August 1942. Blockaded by the Nazis, a city under siege for ten months, Leningrad was the scene of terrible horrors, where hundreds of thousands of Russians had already starved to death. A smaller orchestra than usual was scraped together for the performance, which was even broadcast via loudspeakers to the German soldiers stationed outside of the city. The London Times reported the event.
On his Seventh Symphony Shostakovich commented, “I wanted to convey the content of grim events. . . . This is music about terror, slavery, the bondage of the spirit.” This suggested that it was as much about the hardship of Stalin’s totalitarian state as about WWII; and there is evidence that Shostakovich had begun the symphony even before the Soviet Union’s entry into the war. The Seventh Symphony is arguably one of his first full-scale “disguised” works. At any rate, Shostakovich won another Stalin Prize for his Seventh Symphony. Its most notable feature is the first moment, in which the same melody, a march theme, is repeated a dozen times while the orchestra thickens around it with every repetition. Although today not considered one of his very greatest works (Shostakovich described how he wrote it in great haste), the Seventh Symphony was a quintessential piece d’occasion, and apparently the most immediately successful symphony ever written.
Although Shostakovich was back in favor, with newspapers and magazines again following his career favorably and in earnest, in private he had his usual woes. Having returned to Moscow, where he found work teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, he spent February 1943 recovering from Typhoid fever. He suffered from ongoing headaches. In July 1943 he entered the competition for a new national anthem, with Stalin personally choosing the winner from around 500 entries, but he didn’t win.
But he completed two masterpieces in 1943. His first, the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Minor, op. 61 (1943), dedicated to the memory of one of his early music teachers (Leonid Nikolayev) who had passed away a year earlier, premiered in the summer of 1943, and has since been described as his most significant work for solo piano. The melancholy Largo movement is one of Shostakovich’s most affective statements.
In September 1943 he completed one of his greatest symphonic works, his Symphony No. 8, op. 65, which premiered 4 November 1943 in Moscow (and was broadcast nationwide on the radio). Shostakovich described it as a “requiem”; its remarkable first movement is a dark and somber Adagio which lasts twenty-five minutes; and its fifteen minute long final movement is similarly melancholy and wistful. Conductor Nikolai Golovanov attended the first performance and remarked, “What lunar craters gave rise to this music, this endless tragedy – the end of the world?” Although the Eighth Symphony was respectfully received by the public and the print media, the authorities deemed it too depressive and modern sounding, and it was subsequently considered “not recommended” for performance. Abroad, the Eighth Symphony has been received as one of Shostakovich’s most ambiguous works: some have interpreted it as a general “wartime” symphony in the manner of his Seventh, but it actually seems to be a personal work revelatory of a progression of his own inner moods. Soviet musicologist Ivan Martinov described well the situation: “The Eighth belongs to the number of those artistic creations, the significance of which cannot be at once fully recognized, which demand a considerable intellectual effort for their perception. . . . The Eighth deserves such unusual concentration and attention.”
His Piano Trio No 2 in E Minor, op. 67, composed in 1944, was another of Shostakovich’s chamber music masterpieces and won him his third Stalin Prize. Dedicated to a recently deceased friend (Ivan Sollertinsky), the Second Piano Trio features a fervid “dance of death” based on a Yiddish folk tune, which was meant as a memorial not only for Benjamin Fleishman, a Jewish pupil of Shostakovich’s killed in action, but also for the ongoing Jewish Holocaust being carried out by the Nazis.
Increasing Political Tension 1945-1952
Three months after the victory over Germany (8 May 1945), Shostakovich completed his Symphony No. 9, op. 70. Unlike its two predecessors, the Ninth Symphony is classical in style (recalling Haydn and Mozart and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony), short in duration (around twenty-five minutes), and requires a smaller orchestra than usual for Shostakovich. Although there are fleeting somber moments, the symphony is generally upbeat, and closes merrily with a light-hearted coda. In a newspaper interview Shostakovich referred to its “airy, serene mood.” It premiered in Leningrad (and was broadcast live nationwide on radio) on 3 November 1945, and was a great success at first. However, the state authorities soon began to disparage it. Shostakovich had defied expectations for a monumental work in the manner of Beethoven’s Ninth to celebrate the Soviet victory; the symphony was criticized for being too frivolous, not part of the national joy. “Is it the right time for a great artist to go on vacation, to take a break from contemporary problems?” asked one music critic at the time. And yet the Ninth Symphony had a hidden design heard only by the sophisticated, as composer Sergei Slonimsky recalled: “Subconsciously we perceived the polemical meaning of the Ninth, its timely mockery of all sorts of hypocrisy, pseudo-monumentality, and bombastic grandiloquence.” (In private, Shostakovich’s mordant wit, as a friend recalled, “excelled in parodying the bureaucratic lingo.”) “Given its context,” explained a Shostakovich biographer, “the Ninth Symphony was an open gesture of dissent and it hardly surprising that its exit from Soviet concert life was virtually instantaneous.” Today, the Ninth Symphony is generally considered one of Shostakovich’s greatest works.
After the war Shostakovich and his family stayed in Moscow, which would be his home for the rest of his life. To earn a living for the time being he taught at the Moscow Conservatory. Meanwhile, Stalin’s cultural purges began again in earnest and Shostakovich remained on his guard. He feared his mail was being read by the authorities. “He appeared to be a man of great inner tension,” an acquaintance recalled of this time. And yet he was in for a surprise. In May 1946, Stalin awarded Shostakovich a six room apartment in Moscow, a country house (dacha) outside of the city, a car, and 60,000 roubles. (After Stalin’s death, Shostakovich gave back the dacha to the state for free.) However, as it turned out, Stalin’s largesse was the proverbial calm before the storm.
In December 1946, Shostakovich was awarded the Order of Lenin for his contribution to the Moscow Conservatory. In this time he had also many official duties as a public servant: chairman of the Leningrad branch of the Composers’ Union; administrative duties on various committees; deputy to the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic) Supreme Soviet from Leningrad’s Dzerzhinsky District. And yet none of this kept him insulated from the viciousness of the attacks that were about to befall him.
1948 was one of his most turbulent years. Once more his career – if not his life – was threatened. On 10-13 January 1948, a conference was held at the Central Committee of the Communist Party for the purposes of a relentless attack on various Russian composers, Shostakovich prominent among them. One of Stalin’s henchmen, Dmitri Shepilov, described Shostakovich’s recent music (his Eighth and Ninth Symphonies) as “devoid of clear social content and by their nature profoundly subjective.” Andrei Zhdanov, the spokesman for Stalin’s anti-composers crusade, called Shostakovich’s (and others’) music “crude, graceless, vulgar”. If it was excruciating for Shostakovich to have to sit in the audience listening to such criticism, it was about to get worse. On 10 February 1948, the Central Committee issued a Decree against the trend of musical experimentation. Shostakovich was prominent among a list of composers (which also included Prokofiev) “whose works show particularly clear manifestations of formalistic distortions and antidemocratic tendencies in music that are alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.” The Decree ominously appealed to the Soviet Government to deal with the “problem”.
Shostakovich experienced immediate effects from this latest attack. He was stripped of his authority in the Composers’ Union. He was dismissed from his Professorships at both the Leningrad and Moscow Conservatories. The Central Committee banned a number of his compositions, Symphonies 6, 8 and 9 and the Piano Concerto No. 1 among them. The works of his which were not banned were still not performed publicly for more than a year. He received poison pen letters in this period which urged him: “You ought to be executed, killed, exterminated, you scoundrel.” Composer Isaak Schwartz recalled the “terrible and relentless hounding of the composer.” Another friend recalled the Shostakovich of this time: “He lived in a state of constant tension and fatigue.” Plunged into poverty once again, Shostakovich contemplated suicide. In a letter to a friend, Shostakovich reported: “Physically, I feel quite low. . . . I suffer from frequent headaches, and besides that I feel constantly nauseous. . . .” He spoke of his “extreme fatigue” and “loss of youthful spirit”.
He completed his virtuosic Violin Concerto No. 1, op. 77, on 24 March 1948, but because it wasn’t distinctly patriotic sounding enough (the authorities deemed it representative of “pernicious formalism”), he promptly stored it away in a drawer. (It finally premiered in Leningrad on 29 October 1955.) As Shostakovich demonstrated time and again over his career, just when his fortunes looked darkest, he composed a highly individualistic and controversial work instead of bowing to the pressure of the authorities. His song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, op., 79, was completed in 24 October 1948, even though Stalin had already begun a campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans”. The song cycle was a secret protest against Stalin. For example, the third song, “Lullaby”, included a perfect description not of Russia’s past but its present: “Your father’s held in chains in Siberia,/kept in prison by the Tsar.” Wisely, Shostakovich hid it away; there were private performances, but it didn’t premiere until 15 January 1955, over a year after Stalin’s death.
During the height of his persecution by the Central Committee, Shostakovich received a personal telephone call from Stalin. Shostakovich was given the surprising news that he had been chosen to be a member of the USSR’s official delegation to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York City, which took place from 25-27 May 1949. Before an audience of Americans Shostakovich was mortified to have to read a prepared text which was highly politicized and didn’t reflect his personal views. Time magazine described him as “a shy, stiff-shouldered man . . . painfully ill at ease.”
When he returned to the Soviet Union, Shostakovich completed his Song of the Forest, op. 81, an inoffensive oratorio which premiered in December 1949. Designed to follow the party line and be a populist work, it was a great success, and won him another Stalin Prize, giving him a much needed 100,000 roubles. Yet in private Shostakovich was composing works closer to his heart, such as his String Quartet No. 4, op. 83, which he promptly shelved, another work that wouldn’t premiere until after Stalin’s death; and his Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, op. 87 (1951), inspired by Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. To help pay the bills, he composed music for a series of films on and off up until 1956. In all, Shostakovich composed forty film scores in his life.
Through the early 1950s his health remained poor. He suffered from a series of illnesses, from angina and flu to a liver ailment to tonsillitis. Meanwhile, from 1950 to 1952 he visited various cities of Europe as a part of official Soviet delegations, took part in conferences as a member of the Soviet Peace Committee, and gave a number of public concerts of his own works throughout the Soviet Union; he composed only a few (and politically inoffensive) minor works in this period. In March 1953 Shostakovich and the rest of the Soviet Union received news that brought him (in the words of a friend) “a sense of relief”: on 5 March 1953, Joseph Stalin died.
Cultural Thaw 1953-1958
Following the death of Stalin, the pressure on artists to exclusively create bland Socialist Realist works began to lessen. Early evidence of the “cultural thaw” was an article in Pravda on 27 November 1953 which spoke of “The importance of encouraging new departures in art.” Now, at the age of 46, Shostakovich had more freedom to create his works than at any time since his twenties. For the rest of his life, every single one of his major works was a popular and critical success; his position as Soviet Russia’s greatest living composer was indisputable.
Written in the summer and fall following Stalin's death, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, op. 93, premiered in Leningrad and Moscow in December 1953. Designed on the grand scale, it is universally recognized as one of his greatest works and a landmark in the history of the symphony. The Tenth Symphony starts with a long, slow, dark and brooding, mournful first movement (unquestionably one of the greatest moments in his career) and ends with a giddily upbeat, fast-paced finale which looks forward to a new outlook. In between, Shostakovich encoded the Allegretto third movement with a haunting melody that is his musical monogram: D – S – C – H (German notation for D – E flat – C – B), a touch that asserts the personality of the individual as opposed to the fast-paced, hectic, tense second movement, which Shostakovich reportedly described as a portrait of the terrifying Stalinist state. Composer Aram Khachaturian described the Tenth at the time as “an optimistic tragedy, infused with a firm belief in the victory of bright, optimistic forces.”
The Tenth Symphony is a prime example of his remarkably allusive music; Shostakovich scholar David Fanning has listed no less than 45 allusions to Shostakovich’s own and other’s works in the Tenth Symphony. If one has ears to hear these allusions, the symphony takes on shades and resonances which enrich the music.
The Tenth Symphony occasioned a three day conference at the Composers’ Union in the spring of 1954. Its merits and importance and ramifications were debated. The final, conclusive word on his new symphony came in August 1954, when he was named “People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R.”. He was showered with honors for the rest of his life.
Many of his works previously hidden away were now premiered and played, such as his Third and Fourth String Quartets and his First Violin Concerto. Shostakovich was earning a good living by 1954 and did not have to worry about money for the rest of his life. He owned four pianos, a car, and rented a country house outside Moscow with a large garden by the Klyazma River. In this time he helped a countless number of people who had suffered during Stalin’s time in power, such as by letting them stay in his apartment when they returned from labor camps (“Our home was sometimes like a small hotel for people who came back,” his son Maxim recalled), as well as writing letters to government officials to aid returnees’ reintegration to society.
His wife Nina passed away from cancer in December 1954. He later dedicated his String Quartet No. 7, op. 108 (1960), to her memory. He wrote no new work in 1955, and spent the year attending premieres and concerts of his music and attending to his various official duties. In the summer of 1956 he married 32-year-old Margarita Andreyevna Kainova, a worker for Komsomol (Communist Youth Organization). The marriage lasted only three years before he divorced her.
His upbeat, delightful Piano Concerto No. 2, op. 102, completed on 5 February 1957 was written for his son Maxim, also a pianist, who premiered the work on his nineteenth birthday in Moscow on 10 May 1957. Not only is it noteworthy for being one of the most recent piano concertos to enter the international repertoire, but Shostakovich never again composed such a happy work.
His Symphony No. 11, The Year 1905, op. 103, was completed in August 1957 and premiered in Moscow on 30 Oct 1957. At face value, the symphony, which uses a series of folk and revolutionary songs, commemorated the failed Revolution of 1905. But it was another of his works with a hidden program: it could be heard as an elegiac and anxious recollection of the Stalin years; and its tense, martial coda may have also stirred thoughts of the recent Soviet quelling of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. The work takes over an hour to perform, but is not grandiose in design; the musical language is marked by a clarity and a conciseness which makes the symphony immediately accessible to the listener, and there are episodes of entrancing beauty (but also harrowing violence as well). A politician who was present at the premiere later recalled: “the public, the whole of the huge crowded hall . . . were seething with excitement.” The Eleventh Symphony won him the Lenin Prize (renamed from Stalin Prize). Its distinctly Russian subject matter explains the relative lack of enthusiasm afforded it from the rest of the world (however, one Paris newspaper remarked at the time, “Such music could not fail to move any audience”); outside of Russia it remains a little-heard masterpiece.
1958 was a time of happiness and sorrow for Shostakovich. Happiness came in the form of a series of official recognitions both at home and abroad. A complete reversal of his earlier persecutions by the Communist Party took place. Nikita Khrushchev, the new Party Leader, hosted a reception for the country’s most esteemed artists and scientists on 8 February 1958, and Shostakovich was present. On 28 May 1958, a document issued by the Central Committee reversed some of the opinions of the 1948 Resolution, commenting that Shostakovich and others had been “indiscriminately denounced”. Between May and October 1958 Shostakovich went travelling, and received many honors and awards. In Rome he became an honorary member of the Accademia di S Cecilia; in Paris he was inducted as Commander de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; in England, Oxford University awarded him an honorary doctorate and the Royal Academy of Music made him an honorary member; in Helsinki he won the Sibelius Prize. He remarked to a friend: “I am frightened that I will choke in an ocean of awards.” Shostakovich was always modest and never felt comfortable receiving compliments or awards. A friend recalled: “When listening to compliments, his face distorts into a grimace, and he’s unable to find an apt or polite reply.”
Illness and Final Years 1958-1975
1958 was also a time of sadness. Early in the year Shostakovich experienced a loss of mobility in his right hand, and the affliction would plague him for the rest of his life. He wrote in a letter to a friend: “I find it difficult to [even] brush my teeth.” In 1969 it would finally be diagnosed as a rare form of poliomyelitis. He remained sickly for the rest of his life and spent an increasing amount of time in hospitals. A friend recalled: “his face assumed a tortured aspect.” Another friend described the middle-aged Shostakovich in terms which revealed that the man himself had never changed: “He always appeared extremely nervous. His face was a bag of tics and grimaces. . . . When he sat at his desk or at a table, he would always nervously drum at it with his fingers.”
He dedicated his Cello Concerto No. 1, op. 107, which he completed on 20 July 1959, to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, whose career Shostakovich had aided since Rostropovich’s youth. The first movement features his musical monogram D – S – C – H, which suggests the concerto is an accurate reflection of his personal moods: sparkly-eyed spirited and darkly melancholy by turns. Rostropovich once described Shostakovich’s quiet side: “He would telephone me and say ‘Come quickly, hurry.’ So I’d arrive at his flat and he’d say ‘Sit down, and now we can be silent.’ I would sit for half an hour, without a word. . . . Then Shostakovich would get up and say ‘Thank you. Goodbye Slava.”
Although Shostakovich got sicker and sicker as the years progressed, he travelled abroad more and more. In October and November 1959 he visited seven cities in the United States including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Boston, and received various honors along the way, such as becoming an honorary member of the American National Institute of Arts. During his trip he visited Disneyland and enjoyed the rides (he was a lifelong fan of rollercoasters). Years later he told a friend in private that he considered America “a wonderful country.”
Back home, he had an array of official duties to contend with. For example, in April 1960 he was appointed First Secretary (the highest post) of a newly established RSFSR Union of Composers. The Soviet government used him as a symbol of the “free” arts, and dozens of articles on various subjects were ghost-written and published in his name. Recalled one of his speechwriters, “Even in the preparation of his articles about music, the participation of the author was a mere formality, and sometimes it was altogether lacking.” As he was a representative for Leningrad in the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, once a month he sat in an office hearing constituents’ troubles. As one of his biographers described, “The composer got involved in family conflicts, listened to stories of collapsed ceilings and broken toilets, promised to get medicines, and made inquiries about pensions.”
In the summer of 1960 Shostakovich had a series of meetings with P. N. Pospelov, a high-level official in the Communist Party, who energetically pressed Shostakovich to join the Party under the pretext that his appointment of First Secretary of the Composers’ Union dictated such a move. In December 1960, Shostakovich applied for membership to the Communist Party. His friends and family found this move mystifying, and yet they seemed to understand it all the same. Shostakovich once told a friend, “I’d sign anything even if they hand it to me upside down. I just want to be left alone.” Another friend explained Shostakovich’s decision in this manner: “he was quite simply afraid.” Indeed: “I am scared to death of them,” Shostakovich told another friend. In this period Shostakovich quoted Pushkin to a fourth friend: “From the fates there is no defense.” He told yet another friend, Issak Glikman, straight out: “I just gave in.” He became a full member in the Party a year later.
Just after requesting membership in the Communist Party, Shostakovich completed his String Quartet No. 8, op. 110, on 2 Oct 1960. Built almost entirely of quotations from his earlier works, it obviously affirms the primacy of the self over his absorption into the Party. His musical monogram D – S – C – H runs through all five movements. Shostakovich commented in a letter to a friend, “The title page could carry the dedication: ‘To the memory of the composer of this quartet’.” Well-received like all of his later works, it has since been celebrated as a classic work of the genre.
In 1961 he returned to teaching at the Leningrad Conservatory, commuting there twice a month. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, sang Shostakovich’s setting of the Russian poem, “The Motherland Hears”, while he was orbiting the earth on 12 April 1961.
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12, The Year 1917, op. 112, dedicated to memory of Lenin, was completed on 22 August 1961 and premiered in Leningrad two months later. A great success, the symphony subsequently was played around the country for workers and farmers. Composed for a larger than usual orchestra, the symphony has episodes of haunting beauty and a mighty finale subtitled “The Dawn of Humanity”. However, as a result of its subject matter, the symphony is, like the Eleventh, one of his lesser-played efforts outside of Russia. Meanwhile, his Fourth Symphony finally premiered to great acclaim, in Moscow on 30 December 1961.
1962 was a busy year for Shostakovich. The first half of the year was taken up with official duties. He was elected a deputy to the Council of Nationalities of the USSR Supreme Soviet representing Leningrad; he participated in the Third All-Union Congress of Composers; he was appointed President of the Organizing Committee of the Second International Tchaikovsky Competition; and there were other obligations. In August 1962 he travelled to the Edinburgh Festival in the U.K., which had organized an extensive retrospective of his work, including the Western premiere of his Fourth Symphony. In November 1962, at the age of 56, he married Irina Antonova Suprinskaya, 27, a literary editor. She remained with him for the rest of his life.
His Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar, op. 113, mostly written during an extended stay in the hospital in the early summer of 1962, premiered in Moscow on 18 December 1962. A choral symphony set to five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, it was Shostakovich’s last politically controversial work, but not because of the music. The first poem, “Babi Yar”, concerned the theme of Russian anti-Semitism, and Khrushchev had already attacked the poem prior to Shostakovich’s setting. The fourth movement, “Fears”, recalled the worst of the Stalinist era – “I remember them in power and strength/At the court of triumphant lies./Fears slithered everywhere, like shadows,/Penetrating every floor.” – and suggested that not all fears have died out, and justifiably so. However, as a testament to Shostakovich’s reputation, government officials decided to allow the premiere performance to take place. Although the score requires a larger than usual orchestra, the orchestration of the Thirteenth Symphony is restrained and the full orchestra appears only sparingly; in places powerful moods are created through the use of solo instruments. Russian music scholar Boris Schwarz was present at the premiere: “At the end there was an ovation rarely witnessed. . . . The audience went wild.” However, Pravda reported on the premiere with but one single sentence on the following day. Due to its outspoken text, the Thirteenth Symphony was soon banned, and forbidden from performance for a decade. But the Symphony remains, and Shostakovich has the last word: its final movement, “A Career”, uses Galileo as a symbol for the artist who remains true to his ideals.
Between 1963-1965 Shostakovich went travelling and continued composing. Works included his Ninth and Tenth string quartets and the vocal-symphonic poem The Execution of Stepan Razin, op. 119 (1964). But he was suffering from heart trouble and was in terrible physical shape. His Cello Concerto No. 2, op. 126, was completed on 27 April 1966, while he was convalescing at a sanatorium near Yalta. Whereas his First Cello Concerto reaches giddy joyful heights, the Second Cello Concerto is reflective and melancholy, and yet not without moments of his characteristic humor, as at one point he quotes from an old Odessan song, “Bread Rolls, Buy My Bread Rolls”.
A concert celebrating his sixtieth birthday was held in Leningrad on 28 May 1966, at which Shostakovich played the piano. It was his last public performance. That night, he suffered a heart attack which necessitated two months’ recuperation. He quit his chain smoking and drinking. A friend’s impression: “very pale . . . he has lost most of his hair . . . He walks with difficulty . . . His hands are still shaky and his fingers have become quite weak.”
His first composition following his heart attack was Seven Verses of Alexander Blok, op. 127, completed on 3 February 1967. He attributed his return to composition to the discovery of a bottle of brandy his wife had hidden; he had a glass, and “everything came to me at once.” His Violin Concerto No. 2, op. 129, was completed 18 May 1967. Its spare texture, characteristic of his late works, conveys a lyrical sadness alternating with a sense of humor. He experimented with the twelve tone row in his String Quartet No. 12 (1968) and Sonata for Violin and Piano, op. 134 (1968).
During an extended stay in the hospital between January and March 1969, Shostakovich composed his choral Symphony No. 14, op. 135, and it premiered in Leningrad on 29 September of that year. A cycle of eleven songs based on texts by Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker, and Rilke, and scored for a soprano, bass, and chamber orchestra (with extra percussion), it was not specifically an oratorio or a symphony, strictly speaking. “For the first time in my life," he wrote to a friend, "I remain perplexed as to what name to give a composition of mine.” He remarked on the subject of what he eventually called his Fourteenth Symphony: “Death awaits all of us. I don’t see anything good about such an end to our lives and this is what I am trying to convey in this work.” Very “modern sounding” (with echoes of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg), it is his most unremittingly somber work, and yet its downbeat subject matter hasn’t impaired its reputation as a major orchestral work; the New York Times, for example, wrote in its review, “this symphony is likely to find a place among the most enduring creations.”
That his Thirteenth and Fourteenth Symphonies are choral reflect that he considered Mahler’s Das Leid von der Erde as one of his most favorite works. Shostakovich’s personal favorites included all of Mahler’s symphonies, various works of Beethoven, Verdi’s Otello, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. He rated Berg and Bartók very highly, as well as Brahms’s four symphonies. He met with his friend Benjamin Britten at various times during the 1960s and considered his War Requiem as worthy of comparison to the best of Mahler.
Shostakovich was hospitalized again in the autumn of 1969, and underwent treatment for his poliomyelitis for much of 1970. His String Quartet No. 13, op. 138, was completed in the summer of 1970. Although it has a bleak character (reminiscent of his Fourteenth Symphony), the entire work was played as an encore at its premiere in Leningrad on 13 December 1970.
In the early 1970s Shostakovich told his friend, “I am not ready to die. I still have a lot of music to write.” Evidence of this was the completion of one of his most remarkable works, his Symphony No. 15, op. 141, on 29 July 1971. It was his last full-scale orchestral composition. When it premiered in Moscow in January 1972 (and conducted by his son Maxim), it was a major cultural event, and broadcast live on the radio. The Fifteenth Symphony is marked by a simplicity of style and economy of scoring; its orchestra requirement, except for the percussion section, is even smaller than his First Symphony. The whimsical first movement quotes from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, which was among the first works Shostakovich ever heard; the mood is childlike, a wistful, nostalgic treatment of the energy and innocence of youth. The long second movement is tragic, if not desolate, an unremitting mood of mourning. The short third movement is a playful dance recalling Shostakovich’s good-humoured side, yet still tinged with melancholy (and it includes his musical monogram, a clue to the inner personality of the symphony). The last movement begins with an ominous quotation of Wagner’s Fate motif from Die Walküre, a somber theme suggesting death. Another long and melancholy movement ends with a remarkable “otherworldly” coda with clockwork-sounding percussion instruments (such as a wood block) suggesting the dance of a skeleton.
Shostakovich spent two months in hospital in the autumn of 1971, suffering from weakened arms and legs. In September 1971 he suffered his second heart attack which necessitated another extended period of recuperation in both hospital and sanatorium. Although he was becoming increasingly frail, he continued to travel around the world. In 1972 he visited Berlin; London, where he was received by Prime Minister Edward Heath; and Dublin, where he received and honorary doctorate in music from Trinity College.
Shostakovich was diagnosed with lung cancer in December 1972. In hospital, Shostakovich wrote a friend: “Some kind of spring has sprung in my brain. Since the Fifteenth Symphony, I haven’t composed a single note.” In 1973 he went travelling again, first to Berlin; then to Denmark, where he received the Sonning Prize, and donated the considerable prize money to the Soviet Peace Fund; then to America, where he received an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University in Illinois. During his travels he experienced newfound inspiration and composed his String Quartet No. 14, op. 142 (1973), and, in Estonia in August 1973, his Six Verses of Marina Tsvetayeva, op. 143.
Perhaps notably, Shostakovich never wrote any religious music. Great composers throughout the centuries such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all composed religious music, whether they were overtly religious or not. Once asked if he believed in God, Shostakovich remarked, “No, and I am very sorry about it.”
He was in constant pain, ill and weak, and his final works reflect this. His String Quartet No. 15, op. 144, completed 17 May 1974, is unrelentingly elegiac, its surprising structure an unprecedented six Adagio movements all in E flat minor. Suite on Texts of Michelangelo Buonarroti, op. 145, for baritone and piano, was completed 31 July 1974. Dedicated to his wife Irina, the somber, haunting Suite ends with “Immortality” and the lines: “I live on in the hearts of all loving people, and that means I am not dust; mortal decay cannot touch me.”
Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin, op. 146, for baritone and piano, was completed August 1974. The parodic text, by Dostoevsky, includes Shostakovich’s last jeering sneer at officialdom. The lively work, which features the last appearance of Shostakovich’s playful side, ends with: “Hey! The evils of the old world. Hey!”
Shostakovich’s last public appearance was for the premiere of Four Verses in Moscow on 10 May 1975. The honors kept coming: in the spring of 1975 the Shostakovich Peninsula on Alexander Island in Antarctica was named in his honor. His final work was the somber Sonata for Viola and Piano, op. 147, completed 5 July 1975. He told the violist who premiered the work that the last movement was “in memory of Beethoven”. By turns pensive, sad, playful, melancholy, the work ends peacefully in a pure C major.
Shostakovich died in hospital from lung cancer at the age of 69 on 9 August 1975. Thousands of Russians lined up to pass his coffin while he lay in state. He was given a state funeral and was buried in Novodevichy Cemetery. His official obituary described him as “the great composer of our times.” The premiere of his final work, in Leningrad on 1 October 1975, was an emotional experience for the audience. “There was no room left to stand,” an observer recalled. “Against the walls and in all the aisles stood those who, unable to obtain seats, could not bear to miss the concert.”
For decades Shostakovich was misinterpreted by musicologists in the West as a faithful son of the Communist state. This image began to change in 1979, when Testimony: the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, “as told to and edited by Solomon Volkov”, was published in the United States. Testimony presented a Shostakovich who was closer to the truth: an individual who believed in individuality, a man who identified more with the dispossessed than with the “collective” or the “state”, an artist whose work is a memorial of a struggle to maintain a personal voice against the pressures of social conformity and political threat. However, the text of Testimony was not without controversy. Although Volkov was unquestionably an acquaintance of some degree of Shostakovich in the composer’s later years, the authenticity of Testimony has never been properly demonstrated. The story of the Testimony controversy is told in the first ten pages of Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich (1990). “Until Volkov comes clean over how much of Testimony is genuine Shostakovich and how much pastiche, every sentence in it must be taken with a pinch of salt,” MacDonald writes. But MacDonald’s conclusion is: “Testimony is a realistic picture of Dmitri Shostakovich. It just isn’t a genuine one.”
A remark by American composer George Antheil can serve as a fitting tribute to Shostakovich the composer: “Bruckner, Sibelius, Shostakovich . . . these three men more than any others continued the line of the great symphonies. . . . They always shot at the stars and attempted to progress music beyond the point at which the last had taken it.”
A remark by Tatyana Glivenko, a friend of Shostakovich’s from his teenage years, honors Shostakovich the man: “How could anybody not have loved him? He was so pure and open and always thought about other people – how to make things better and easier and nicer for them. If there are saints on this earth, he was one.”
- Wilson, Elizabeth. Shostakovich A Life Remembered (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 6.
- Shostakovich, Dmitri. Shostakovich About Himself and His Times (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980), p. 11); Wilson, p. 10; Roseberry, Eric. Shostakovich His Life and Times (New York: Midas Books, 1982), p. 8; 38.
- Sollertinsky, Dmitri & Ludmilla. Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich (London: Robert Hale, 1980), p. 6; Fay, Laurel E. Shostakovich A Life (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 9.
- Juvenilia without opus numbers.
- Sollertinsky, p. 21-22.
- Wilson, p. 15.
- Shostakovich, Dmitry. Story of a Friendship The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman 1941-1975 (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p. xv.
- Sollertinsky, p. 13; Fay, p. 15.
- Wilson, p. 35.
- The Prelude would be No. 1 of his eventual Eight Preludes, op. 2.
- Fay p. 23.
- Shostakovich, Shostakovich About Himself, p. 10.
- Sollertinsky, p. 33.
- Wilson, p. 27; 28.
- Volkov, Solomon. Shostakovich and Stalin (London: Little, Brown, 2004), p. 71.
- Volkov, p. 72.
- Wilson, p. 51.
- Hildreth, N.P.E. Political Influences Upon the Music of Dmitry Shostakovich [Master’s Thesis, University of Sheffield, 1979], p. 16.
- MacDonald, Ian. The New Shostakovich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 51; Volkov, p. 39.
- Volkov, p. 39; Sollertinsky, p. 53; Fay p. 55-57.
- Sollertinsky, 47.
- Fay, p. 61; Wilson, p. 41; 77.
- Wilson, p. 63.
- Wilson, p. 77.
- Wilson, p. 105; also p. 42.
- Wilson, p. 41; 42; 53.
- Wilson p. 24; 43; 77.
- Shostakovich, Shostakovich About Himself, p. 46.
- Wilson, p. 9.
- Wilson, p. 436.
- Wilson, p. 288.
- Shostakovich, Shostakovich About Himself, p. 35.
- Volkov, p. 231.
- Volkov, p. 116.
- Sollertinsky, p. 73.
- Volkov, p. 123.
- Davies, Norman. Europe A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 961-962.
- Fay, p. 91.
- Fay, p. 84; Roseberry, p. 86.
- Volkov, p. vii; 125.
- Hildreth, p. 31-32; Volkov, p. 132.
- Fay, p. 91.
- MacDonald, p. 105.
- Volkov, p. 149; Fay, p. 92; Sollertinsky, p. 78; Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. xviii.
- Volkov, p. 149; 141.
- Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. xix; Wilson, p. 111; Fay, p. 92.
- Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. 194.
- Blokker, Roy, with Robert Dearling. The Music of Dmitri Shostakovich The Symphonies (London: The Tantivy Press, 1979), p. 57; MacDonald, p. 108; Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. xxiii.
- Fay, p. 95.
- Volkov, p. 166.
- MacDonald, p. 6.
- Fay, p. 102.
- Roseberry, p. 88.
- Shostakovich, Shostakovich About Himself, p. 69; Sollertinsky, p. 82.
- Fay, p. 102.
- Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. xxv.
- MacDonald, p. 132-133, Wilson, p. 126; Fay, p. 102-3; Volkov, p. 183-184.
- Fay, p. 107.
- Fay, p. 109.
- Eberle, Gottfried. Shostakovich, Piano Quintet, CD, Teldec 4509-98414-2.
- Sollertinsky, p. 86; Fay, p. 111.
- Fay p. 111.
- Shostakovich, Shostakovich About Himself, p. 84.
- Volkov, p. 197-8.
- Roseberry, p. 100; Fay p. 117.
- Volkov, p. 173; 198.
- Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. 7.
- Volkov p. 202.
- Wilson, p. 159; Volkov, p. 205.
- Fay, p. 124
- Volkov, p. 220.
- Blokker, p. 102.
- Roseberry, p. 111; MacDonald, p. 173; Sollertinsky, p. 118; Volkov, p. 226-227.
- Shostakovich, Shostakovich About Himself, p. 117.
- Fay, p. 151-2; MacDonald, p. 177.
- Volkov, p. 246.
- Wilson, p. 170.
- MacDonald, p. 180.
- Wilson, p. 194.
- Volkov, p. 255.
- Volkov, p. 261.
- Fay, p. 157-8.
- The Decree was officially referred to as the ‘historic’ Decree, and is also known as the ‘Zhdanov Decree’.
- Fay, p. 161.
- Wilson, p. 221.
- Wilson, p. 204.
- Wilson, p. 242.
- Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. 61.
- Fay p. 172; See also MacDonald, p. 223.
- Hildreth, p. 84; Fay, p. 189.
- See, for example, Volkov, p. 309.
- Fay, p. 189.
- Fanning, David. The Breath of the Symphonist Shostakovich’s Tenth (London: Royal Musical Association, 1988), p. 79-80.
- MacDonald, p. 212.
- MacDonald, p. 213-214; Fay, p. 202.
- Roseberry, p. 149.
- Sollertinsky, p. 144.
- Fay p. 204; Wilson, p. 292; MacDonald, p. 218-219; 223.
- Wilson, p. 333.
- Wilson, p. 372.
- Wilson, p. 392.
- Wilson, p. 237.
- Wilson, p. 463-4.
- Roseberry, p. 171.
- Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. 193.
- Wilson, p. 328; Fay, p. 216.
- Volkov, p. 320.
- Wilson, p. 183.
- Wilson, p. 308.
- Wilson, p. 337.
- Volkov, p.323.
- Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. 92.
- Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. 91.
- Fay p. 180.
- Roseberry, p. 154.
- Fay, p. 249.
- Wilson, p. 398.
- Wilson, p. 411.
- Fay, p. 261.
- Blokker, p. 144.
- Wilson, p. 425; Fay p. 268.
- Fay p. 274; see also Shostakovich, Story of a Friendship, p. 187.
- Fay, p. 263.
- Shostakovich also orchestrated the Suite, op. 145a.
- Wilson, p. 470; Fay p. 286.
- Roseberry, p. 175.
- Sollertinsky, p. 233.
- MacDonald, p. 10; 246.
- Blokker, p. 15.
- Sollertinsky, p. 32.