Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich Template:Audio (Russian: Template:Lang) (September 25, 1906August 9, 1975) was a Russian composer of the Soviet period. His greatest works are generally considered to be his cycles of symphonies and string quartets, 15 of each. Since his death, his response to life in the USSR has been the subject of political and musical controversy. He is also sometimes known by the German spelling of his name, "Dmitri Schostakovich", because of his adoption of the DSCH motif as his musical motto.

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich
Composer Dmitri Shostakovich


Early life

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Shostakovich was a child prodigy as both a pianist and composer. His family seems to have been politically liberal and tolerant (one of his uncles was a Bolshevik, but the family also sheltered far-right extremists). In 1918, he wrote a funeral march in memory of two leaders of the Kadet party, murdered by Bolshevik sailors. In 1922, he was allowed to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, then headed by Alexander Glazunov. However, he suffered for his perceived lack of political zeal, and initially failed his exam in Marxist methodology in 1926. His first major musical achievement was the First Symphony (1925), written as his graduation piece.

After graduation, he initially embarked on a dual career as a concert pianist and composer, but his dry style of playing was unappreciated. He won an "honorable mention" at the 1927 Warsaw International Piano Competition. After the competition, Shostakovich met conductor Bruno Walter, who was so impressed by the composer's First Symphony that he conducted the premiere in Berlin later that year. After that, Shostakovich concentrated on composing music and soon limited performances primarily to those of his own works. In 1927 he wrote his Second Symphony (subtitled To October). While writing the symphony, he also began his satirical opera The Nose, based on the story by Gogol. In 1929, the opera was criticised as "formalist" by RAPM, the Stalinist arts organisation, and it opened to generally poor reviews in 1930.

1927 also marked the beginning of the composer's relationship with Ivan Sollertinsky, who remained his closest friend until the latter's death in 1944. Sollertinsky introduced Shostakovich to the music of Gustav Mahler, which had a strong influence on his music from the Fourth Symphony onwards.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s he worked at TRAM, a proletarian youth theatre. Although he did little work in this post, it shielded him from ideological attack. Much of this period was spent writing his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; it was first performed in 1934 and was immediately successful.

In his personal life, 1932 saw his open marriage to his first wife, Nina Varzar. Initial difficulties led to divorce proceedings in 1935, but the couple soon reunited.

First denunciation

In 1936 Shostakovich fell from grace. The year began with a series of attacks on him in Pravda, in particular a famous article entitled Muddle Instead of Music. The campaign was instigated by Stalin and condemned Lady Macbeth as formalist; consequently, commissions began to dry up, and his income fell by about three quarters. The Fourth Symphony entered rehearsals, but the political climate made performance impossible. It was not performed until 1961, but Shostakovich did not repudiate the work: it retained its designation as his fourth symphony.

More widely, 1936 marked the beginning of the Great Terror, in which many of the composer's friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed. His only consolation in this period was the birth of his daughter Galina in 1936; his son Maxim was born two years later.

The Fifth Symphony of 1937 seems something of a compromise: it is not overtly political, either for or against the regime, and it is musically conservative without being simplistic. It was a success, and is still one of his most popular works. Notably, it is at this time that Shostakovich composed the first of his string quartets. His chamber works allowed him to experiment and express ideas which would have been unacceptable in his more public symphonic pieces.

In September 1937, he began to teach composition at the Conservatory, which provided some financial security but interfered with his own creative work.


On the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany in 1941, Shostakovich initially remained in Leningrad during the siege, writing his Seventh Symphony. In October 1941, the composer and his family were evacuated to Kuybishev (now Samara), where the work was completed. It was adopted as a symbol of Russian resistance both in the USSR and in the West.

In spring 1943 the family moved to Moscow. The Eighth Symphony of that year is a long and dark work, which proved to be too dark for the authorities. It was soon banned until 1960.

Second denunciation

In 1948 Shostakovich was again denounced for formalism in the Zhdanov decree. Most of his works were banned, he was forced publicly to repent, and his family had privileges withdrawn. Yuri Lyubimov says that at this time "he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn't be disturbed" (Wilson p. 183).

In the next few years his compositions were divided into film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works "for the desk drawer". These latter included the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. There is some dispute over whether he realised the dangers of writing the latter. Laurel Fay has argued that he was attempting to conform with official policy by adopting folk song as his inspiration; on the other hand it was written at a time when the post-war anti-Semitic campaign was already underway, and Shostakovich had close ties with some of those affected.

The restrictions on Shostakovich's music and living arrangements were eased in 1949, in order to secure his participation in a delegation of Soviet notables to the U.S. That year he also wrote his cantata Song of the Forests, which praised Stalin as the "great gardener". In 1951 the composer was made a deputy to the Supreme Soviet. Stalin's death in 1953 was the biggest step towards Shostakovich's official rehabilitation. This was marked by his Tenth Symphony. The symphony contains a number of musical quotations and codes (notably the DSCH and Elmira motifs), the meaning of which is still debated. It ranks alongside the Fifth as one of his most popular works. 1953 also saw a stream of premieres of the "desk drawer" works.

During the forties and fifties Shostakovich had close relationships with two of his pupils: Galina Ustvolskaya and Elmira Nazirova. He taught Ustvolskaya from 1937 to 1947. The nature of their relationship is far from clear: Rostropovich described it as "tender" and Ustvolskaya claimed in a 1995 interview that she rejected a proposal from him in the fifties. However, in the same interview, Ustvolskaya's friend, Viktor Suslin, said that she had been "deeply disappointed" in him by the time of her graduation in 1947. The relationship with Nazirova seems to have been one-sided, expressed largely through his letters to her, and can be dated to around 1953 to 1956. In the background to all this remained Shostakovich's first, open marriage to Nina Varzar until her death in 1954. He married his second wife, Margarita Kainova, in 1956; the couple proved ill-matched, and divorced three years later.

Interpretation of the Eleventh Symphony of 1956–7 is disputed: it can be seen as referring to the attempted Russian Revolution of 1905, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution or both.

Joining the Party

1960 marked another turning point in Shostakovich's life: his joining of the Communist Party. This event has been interpreted variously as a show of commitment, a mark of cowardice, or as having been forced. On the one hand, the apparat was undoubtedly less repressive than it had been prior to Stalin's death. On the other, his son recalled that the event reduced Shostakovich to tears (Ho, p. 390), and he later told his wife Irina that he had been blackmailed (Manashir Yakubov, programme notes for the 1998 Shostakovich seasons at the Barbican, London). Lev Lebedinsky has said that the composer was suicidal (Wilson, p. 340).

In this period he was also increasingly affected by poliomyelitis, from which he began to suffer in 1958.

Shostakovich's musical response to these personal crises was the Eighth String Quartet, which like the Tenth Symphony incorporates quotations and his musical monogram.

In 1962 he married for the third time, to Irina Supinskaya, who was then only 27. That year saw Shostakovich again turn to the subject of anti-Semitism in his Thirteenth Symphony (subtitled Babi Yar). The symphony sets a number of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the first of which commemorates a massacre of the Jews during the Second World War. Opinions are divided as to how great a risk this was: the poem had been published in Soviet media, and was not banned, but it remained controversial. After the symphony's premiere, Yevtushenko was forced to add a stanza to his poem claiming that Russians and Ukrainians died alongside the Jews at Babi Yar.

Later life

In later life, Shostakovich suffered from chronic ill-health: his myelitis continued to worsen, and he suffered heart problems from the mid-1960s. The diagnosis is controversial, but some have claimed he suffered from a rare form of polio during those last years. Most of his later works — the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies, and the late quartets — are dark and introspective. They have attracted much critical favour in the west, as they do not pose the same problems of interpretation as the earlier, more public pieces.

Shostakovich died of lung cancer on August 9, 1975 and was interred in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia. His son Maxim Shostakovich is a pianist and conductor. He was the dedicatee and first performer of some of his father's works.


For a complete list, see List of compositions by Dmitri Shostakovich (by Opus number). See also: Category:Shostakovich compositions (thematical selection of works by Shostakovich)

Among his best-known works are the Fifth and Tenth Symphonies and the Eighth and Fifteenth Quartets. His music shows the influence of many of the composers which he most admired: Bach in his fugues and passacaglias; Beethoven in the late quartets; Mahler in the symphonies and Berg in his use of musical codes and quotations. His works are broadly tonal and in the Romantic tradition, but with elements of atonality and chromaticism. In some of his later works (e.g. the Twelfth Quartet), he made use of tone rows. Many commentators have noted the disjunction between the experimental works before the 1936 denunciation and the more conservative ones which followed; the composer told Flora Litvinova, "without 'Party guidance'... I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm, I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage" (Wilson p. 426).

Volkov has argued that Shostakovich adopted the role of the yurodivy or holy fool. The yurodivy plays a particularly important role in Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, which Shostakovich admired and himself orchestrated.

Both Shostakovich and his son, Maxim Shostakovich, left behind a rich selection of recordings of the composer's piano works. Other superb interpreters of his music include Emil Gilels, Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Maria Yudina, all of whom were good friends of the composer.


Shostakovich was in many ways an obsessive man: according to his daughter he was "obsessed with cleanliness" (Ardov p. 139); he synchronised the clocks in his apartment; he regularly sent cards to himself to test how well the postal service was working. Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered indexes 26 references to his nervousness. Even as a young man, Mikhail Druskin remembers that the composer was "fragile and nervously agile" (Wilson, pp. 41–45). Yuri Lyubimov comments that "The fact that he was more vulnerable and receptive than other people was no doubt an important feature of his genius" (Wilson p. 183). In later life, Krzysztof Meyer recalled, "his face was a bag of tics and grimaces" (Wilson 462).

In his lighter moods, sport was one of his main recreations, although he preferred spectating or umpiring to participating (he was a qualified football referee). He also enjoyed playing card games, particularly Patience.

Both light and dark sides of his character were evident in his fondness for satirical writers such as Gogol, Chekhov and Mikhail Zoshchenko (Wilson p. 41). The influence of the latter in particular is evident in his letters, which include wry parodies of Soviet officialese.

He was diffident by nature: Flora Litvinova has said he was "completely incapable of saying "No" to anybody" (Wilson p. 162). This meant he was easily persuaded to sign official statements, including a denunciation of Andrei Sakharov in 1973; on the other hand he was willing to try to help constituents in his capacities as chairman of the Composers' Union and Deputy to the Supreme Soviet. Oleg Prokofiev commented that "he tried to help so many people that... less and less attention was paid to his pleas" (Wilson p. 401).

Orthodoxy and revisionism

Shostakovich's response to official criticism is disputed. It is clear that outwardly he conformed with the state, reading speeches and putting his name to articles expressing the government line. It is also generally agreed that he disliked the regime, a view confirmed by his family, his letters to Isaak Glikman, and the satirical cantata "Rayok", which ridiculed the "anti-formalist" campaign and was kept hidden until after his death.

What is uncertain is the extent to which Shostakovich expressed his opposition to the state in his other music. The revisionist view was put forth by Solomon Volkov in the 1979 book Testimony, which was claimed to be Shostakovich's memoirs dictated to Volkov. The book claimed that many of the composer's works contained coded anti-government messages. It is known that he incorporated many quotations and motifs in his work, most notably his signature DSCH theme. His longtime collaborator Yevgeny Mravinsky said that "Shostakovich very often explained his intentions with very specific images and connotations" (Wilson p. 139). The revisionist perspective has subsequently been supported by his children, Maxim and Galina, and many Russian musicians. His widow Irina supports the general thesis but denies the authenticity of Testimony. Other prominent revisionists are Ian MacDonald, whose book The New Shostakovich put forward more interpretations of his music, and Elizabeth Wilson, whose Shostakovich: A Life Remembered provides testimony from many of the composer's acquaintances.

Many musicians and scholars (notably Laurel Fay and Richard Taruskin) contest the authenticity (and debate the significance) of Testimony, alleging that Volkov compiled it from a combination of recycled articles, gossip, and possibly some information direct from the composer. More broadly, they argue that the significance of Shostakovich is in his music rather than his life, and that to seek political messages in the music detracts from, rather than enhances, its artistic value.

Further reading


  • Ardov, Michael (2004). Memories of Shostakovich. Short Books. ISBN 190409564X.
  • Jon Luebke's Shostakovich Page (, containing a selected discography and annotated bibliography.
  • MacDonald, Ian (1990). The New Shostakovich. Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1555530893.
  • Onno van Rijen's Opus by Shostakovich (, categorised list of works.
  • Shostakovich, Dmitri and Glikman, Isaak (2001). Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman. Cornell Univ Press. ISBN 0801439795.
  • Shostakovich, Dmitri and Volkov, Solomon (2000). Testimony (7th edition). Proscenium. ISBN 0879100214.
  • Shostakovichiana (, a comprehensive collection of materials on the composer from a revisionist perspective. Created by Ian MacDonald.
  • Shostakovich Myths Debunked (, criticism of Testimony and revisionism in general.
  • Volkov, Solomon (2004). Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator. Knopf. ISBN 0375410821.
  • Wilson, Elizabeth (1994). Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691044651.

Further reading

  • Fay, Laurel (1999). Shostakovich: A Life. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195134389.
  • Ho, Allan and Feofanov, Dmitry (1998). Shostakovich Reconsidered. Toccata Press. ISBN 0907689566.


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