A composer of symphonies, concertos, piano music, chamber music, ballets, and film scores, Dmitry Shostakovich created classical music that spoke to modern times. Composing during the Soviet period, Shostakovich had to square state mandates for ideologically appropriate music with his own creative inclinations – usually choosing the latter, and at his own expense.
Born in St. Petersburg on September 12, 1906 (by the old calendar – that’s September 25 by today's calendar), Shostakovich studied piano at the Petrograd Conservatory. He achieved world-wide acclaim with his First Symphony, completed in 1925 when he was just 19. This was during the early years of the Soviet Regime, when there was an atmosphere of artistic freedom – hence the influence of the avant-garde to be heard in Symphony No.1, which has vaudevillian as well as satirical elements in addition to more traditional classical movements.
The avant-garde was not to last. In 1928, Joseph Stalin launched his first Five-Year Plan, which, among other things, meant that the strong hand of the Soviet government was to control and mandate what Russian artists produced.
Like many artists struggling for freedom of expression within a regimented artistic system, Shostakovich had trouble confining his creativity to permissible forms. His noteworthy opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, is a prime example: Stalin attended a performance of the opera in 1936 and was so offended by it that he banned both the opera and its creator.
This response was devastating to the 30-year-old Shostakovich. The Soviet-run press attacked the young composer, and his Fourth Symphony (1935), not yet performed, was black-listed.
Yet Shostakovich was not to be beaten. He composed his Fifth Symphony in 1937 – a work that, for an artist who had been in trouble with the regime once before, might have been expected to be a trivial, unremarkable, and safe piece of music. That was not the case. Shostakovich's Fifth is the statement of an artist who will not be kept quiet. Dark and forceful, it was met with wide public appeal, and was even accepted by the Soviet authorities. The Fifth marked a turning point in Shostakovich's career; from here on, his personal style and directness are well defined.
Having redeemed himself, Shostakovich was appointed to the faculty of the Leningrad (formerly Petrograd) Conservatory in 1937, where he taught and composed until moving to Moscow in 1943. The post-WWII Soviet Union imposed strict rules on musical composition. It was not to reflect the times; rather, it was to be simple, light and upbeat in nature. They wanted music that presented to the world a country of happy and healthy citizens. Shostakovich's compositions did not adhere to the state’s demands; his later symphonies became more grim and he was, once again, officially attacked and disgraced by the authorities in 19848. With this second fall from grace, he was not even allowed to teach.
Shostakovich composed a compromise with Song of the Forests, an oratorio written in 1949. Responding to the state mandate for accessible music as well as official disapproval, Shostakovich wrote Song of the Forests to stress positive and living themes. The work was inspired by the reforestation projects of the Soviet Union and the lyrics, just to be on the safe side, profusely praised Stalin and his agenda. Stalin was overjoyed with the work and, in 1950, awarded it the Stalin Prize, First Grade. Stalin died in 1953 and, after a decade of heavy criticism regarding his policies, the lyrics of Song of the Forests had to be changed if the work was to ever be heard again; the lyricist, Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, rewrote the lyrics in 1962 – and those are the ones to be heard today.
With the exception of Song of the Forests and some light string quartets, Shostakovich’s musical proclivities did not coincide with the demands of socialist realism. The rigid control on composing ended with Stalin’s death in 1953; in that year, Shostakovich presented his Tenth Symphony: it was bold, direct, and promptly recognized for its excellence.
The rest of his life’s work went on unhindered. From the death of his contemporary Sergei Prokofiev in 1953 until his own death in 1975, Shostakovich was the undisputed leader of Russian music. Known to be a true Communist, he refused to have his creative activities dictated to him or have his work used as propaganda for the state. It was the tension of this apparent contradiction that produced his greatest works.
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