On 9 August it will be 40 years since the death of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the most significant musical figures of the 20th Century. Born in St Petersburg in 1906, he studied the piano with his mother from the age of nine and entered the Conservatoire aged 13, where the leading composer Alexander Glazunov kept a close eye on him. He went on to write 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, six concertos, a piano quintet, two piano trios and two string octets. His solo piano works include two solo sonatas, and two sets of preludes, one with accompanying fugues. He also wrote operas, song cycles, ballets and film music.
Forced to live for most of his life under a totalitarian regime – one moment in favour with Soviet leaders, then just as quickly out of it again – for much of his career Shostakovich was judged by political rather than musical criteria. He once described life under Stalin's regime as “unbelievably mean and hard. Every day brought more bad news and I felt so much pain. I was so lonely and afraid.” Denounced in 1936 as “an enemy of the people”, friends he had once considered loyal supporters began crossing the street to avoid him. To know him was dangerous; to associate with him, potentially fatal. He risked execution or deportation to the Gulag yet played the system just carefully enough to survive, publishing music that earned him praise for "not having given in to the seductive temptations of his previous 'erroneous' ways”; at least, that is, until his second denunciation for “formalism” and “western influences” in 1948, after which most of his music was banned.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953 in you can almost feel, in his music, the gigantic breath of relief, as he could start to publish not just the “desk drawer” works he’d kept under wraps for years, including the Fourth Symphony, but also works in which he could openly give musical expression to the brutalities he and his contemporaries had endured under Stalin’s purges. “Without party guidance,” he later said, “I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm, I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage."
That wistful comment leads me to ponder the fateful accident of timing, of geography. What might have been, had Shostakovich been born in a different time, a different place? Judged by any artistic metric, he was a genius: the real deal, writing music that occasionally verges on the grotesque but has such emotional heft it can shatter your heart.
Here are some interesting facts you might not know about him:
Shostakovich was 26 when his avant-garde opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District was first produced. An instant success, it proved hugely popular with audiences. Then on 28 January 1936, Stalin himself came to see it, with his politburo in tow. Shostakovich was also in the audience, and eyewitness accounts describe him as "white as a sheet" when he went to take his bow after the third act. Sure enough, an editorial in the Pravda newspaper the next day ran with the headline “Muddle instead of music” and denounced the work as “coarse, primitive and vulgar”. It also hinted that “things could end very badly” for Shostakovich unless he switched musical gears and toed the expected Soviet line. Shostakovich was subsequently shunned by almost everyone he knew.
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