September 25, 2016

Listen and Learn: Shostakovich Turns 110


Listen and Learn: Shostakovich Turns 110

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.

You Might Also Like

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Turgenev Bilingual

Turgenev Bilingual

A sampling of Ivan Turgenev's masterful short stories, plays, novellas and novels. Bilingual, with English and accented Russian texts running side by side on adjoining pages.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Survival Russian

Survival Russian

Survival Russian is an intensely practical guide to conversational, colloquial and culture-rich Russian. It uses humor, current events and thematically-driven essays to deepen readers’ understanding of Russian language and culture. This enlarged Second Edition of Survival Russian includes over 90 essays and illuminates over 2000 invaluable Russian phrases and words.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955