Dmitri Shostakovich was a dynamic composer who delicately balanced performing in his preferred avant-garde fashion, writing commissioned communist-sympathetic works for films, plays and ballets, along with the overall requisite that he show Leninist support. How tiring it must have been! Shostakovich is our dynamo Composer of the Week.
b. September 25, 1906, St Petersburg
d. August 9, 1975, Moscow
Dmitri Shostakovich was regarded as the greatest symphonist of the 20th century and his musical talents were clear early on. Shostakovich had perfect pitch and was also well-acquainted with works by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov by approximately age 10.
The success of his first symphony made him internationally famous. Composed between 1924 and 1925, it was his graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory.
Shostakovich’s true calling was to compose in avant-garde forms, however, the need to earn money and support his mother led him to accept contracts to compose for film, ballets and plays in the late 20s. He wrote music for 10 films, 8 plays and 3 ballets, all of which were propagandist works denouncing capitalism.
Additionally in this time, Shostakovich placed a strong emphasis on performing as a pianist. He placed 8th in the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.
His 1934 premiere of the opera Lady Macbeth was incredibly successful and well-regarded, until Stalin and some of his high-ranking officials attended a performance of the work and denounced it as leftist confusion. Shostakovich immediately lost his position of the leader in Soviet music. Throughout his life, Shostakovich endured the hypocracy of showing Leninist support. It is believed that he was only minimally supportive of this regime and instead showed support to avoid the ruin of his career. These difficulties took a toll on Shostakovich.
Though he managed to maintain his artistic voice while singing the praises of Lenin, he was also denounced several time for “formalism,” which means that he was accused of writing music that was too highly structured in lieu of providing simple uplifting music for the masses.
Against his will, Shostakovich was named First Secretary of the Soviet Composers Union and the many prizes he won included an honorary degree from Oxford and, ironically, the Lenin Prize.
A selection from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite:
The super fabulous Scherzo: