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Dmitry Shostakovich: the 100 most inspiring musicians of all time
Russian composer Dmitry Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (b. Sept. 12 [Sept. 25, New Style], 1906, St. Petersburg, Russia —d. Aug. 9, 1975, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.) was renowned particularly for his 15 symphonies numerous chamber works, and concerti, many of them written under the pressures of government-imposed standards of Soviet art.
Early Life and Works
Shostakovich was the son of an engineer. He entered the Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg, subsequently Leningrad) Conservatory in 1919, where he studied piano with Leonid Nikolayev until 1923 and composition until 1925 with Aleksandr Glazunov and Maksimilian Steinberg. Even before his keyboard success in Warsaw, he had had a far greater success as a composer with the Symphony No. 1 (1924–25), which quickly achieved worldwide currency.
The symphony’s stylistic roots were numerous; the influence of composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith is clearly discernible. In the music Shostakovich wrote in the next few years he submitted to an even wider range of influences, and Shostakovich openly experimented with avant-garde trends.
Second Waltz (piano solo)
His satiric opera The Nose (composed 1927–28), based on Nikolay Gogol’s story Nos, displayed a comprehensive awareness of what was new in Western music, although already it seems as if the satire is extended to the styles themselves, for the avant-garde sounds are contorted with wry humor.
Not surprisingly, Shostakovich’s finer second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (composed 1930–32; revised and retitled Katerina Izmaylova), marked a stylistic retreat. Yet even this more accessible musical language was too radical for the Soviet authorities.
From 1928, when Joseph Stalin inaugurated his First Five-Year Plan, a direct and popular style was demanded in music. Avant-garde music and jazz were officially banned in 1932. Shostakovich did not experience immediate official displeasure, but when it came it was devastating. A performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936 precipitated the official condemnation of the opera and of its creator.
Shostakovich was bitterly attacked in the official press, and both the opera and the still-unperformed Symphony No. 4 (1935–36) were withdrawn. The composer responded with his next major work, Symphony No. 5 (1937). Compounded largely of serious, even somber and elegiac music and presented with a compelling directness, the symphony scored an immediate success with both the public and the authorities.
With his Symphony No. 5, Shostakovich forged the style that he used in his subsequent compositions. Gustav Mahler was a clear progenitor of both Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 5, but the latter represented a drastic shift in technique. Whereas the earlier symphony had been a
sprawling work, founded upon a free proliferation of melodic ideas, the first movement of Symphony No. 5 was marked by melodic concentration and Classical form.
Indeed, Shostakovich had an almost obsessive concern with the working out of a single expressive character, which can also be seen in the recurrence in his mature music of certain thematic ideas, notably various permutations founded upon the juxtaposition of the major and minor third, and the four-note cell D-E♭-C-B derived from the composer’s initials in their German equivalent (D. Sch.), interpreted according to the labels of German musical notation (in which “S,” spoken as “Es,” equals E♭ and “h” equals B).
In 1937 Shostakovich became a teacher of composition in the Leningrad Conservatory, and the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 found him still in that city. He composed his Symphony No. 7 (1941) in beleaguered Leningrad during the latter part of that year and finished
it in Kuybyshev (now Samara), to which he and his family had been evacuated.
The work achieved a quick fame, as much because of the quasi-romantic circumstances of its composition as because of its musical quality. In 1943 Shostakovich settled in Moscow as a teacher of composition at the conservatory, and from 1945 he taught also at the Leningrad Conservatory.
Later Life and Works
Shostakovich’s works written during the mid-1940s contain some of his best music, especially the Symphony No. 8 (1943), the Piano Trio (1944), and the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1947–48). Their prevailing seriousness, even grimness, was to contribute to Shostakovich’s second fall from
official grace. When the Cold War began, the Soviet authorities sought to impose a firmer ideological control, demanding a more accessible musical language than some composers were currently using. In Moscow in 1948, at a now notorious conference, the leading figures of Soviet music—including Shostakovich—were attacked and disgraced.
As a result, the quality of Soviet composition slumped in the next few years, and his teaching activities at both the Moscow and Leningrad conservatories were terminated. Yet he was not completely intimidated, and, in his String Quartet No. 4 (1949) and especially his Quartet No. 5 (1951), he offered a splendid rejoinder to those who would have had him renounce completely his style and musical integrity. His Symphony No. 10, composed in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, flew in the face of his official
detractors, yet, like his Symphony No. 5, compelled acceptance by sheer quality and directness.
From that time on, Shostakovich’s biography is essentially a catalog of his works. He was left to pursue his creative career largely unhampered by official interference. The composer had visited the United States in 1949,
and in 1958 he made an extended tour of Western Europe, where he received a number of honors for his music.
After Prokofiev’s death in 1953, he was the undisputed head of Russian music. Since his own death, his music has been the subject of furious contention between those upholding the Soviet view of the composer as a sincere Communist and those who view him as a closet dissident.
1. Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10
2. Shostakovich – Violin Concerto No. 1
3. Shostakovich – Suite Op. 114
4. Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5
The Best of Shostakovich – Part II – Greatest Works
1 – Shostakovich – Symphony No. 7
2 – Shostakovich – Symphony No. 8 Op. 65
3 – Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No. 2
- Libertango (Piano Solo) – Astor Piazzola
- Milonga del Angel by Astor Piazzolla (arr. piano solo)
- Nocturne – by Secret Garden (piano solo)
- Oblivion (A. Piazzolla) Two pianos – pianists Argerich and Hubert
- Out of Africa – music by John Barry (piano solo)
- The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach (1695-1717) Vol. I and II