Shostakovich: where to start with his music

In the eye of Russia’s revolutionary storm, he wrote some of the most powerful – and cryptic – music of the 20th century. Whether he is judged a Soviet lackey or heroic dissident, the wealth of his musical legacy is beyond doubt

Right from the start there were arguments about the music of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75). Even now, some of them still continue. Was he a radical or a conservative composer? An original or a derivative? A communist or a dissident? One thing, though, has become much clearer. The music of Shostakovich has never been more widely played or more consistently popular than it is today.

The music you might recognise

Shostakovich’s music has been used to great effect in movies. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut opens with a beguiling waltz from the Suite for Variety Orchestra. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies features the slow movement of the second piano concerto in a tense scene between a Soviet spy (played by Mark Rylance) and his American lawyer (Tom Hanks). In Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, the third string quartet forms part of a free-flowing dance sequence between the Parisian lovers, played by Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant.

His life …

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was born in St Petersburg in September 1906. His musical abilities were soon obvious. He entered the Petrograd Conservatoire (as it was called after the city was renamed in 1914) at the age of 13. He was a good pianist, a favoured pupil of the conservatoire’s director, Alexander Glazunov, and he had a keen eye for the absurd and grotesque. He also suffered from lifelong fragile health.

Shostakovich’s early compositions were mainly for the piano. But he was catapulted to fame by his highly assured first symphony, written while still a student. It was premiered in 1926 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, the first of many Shostakovich premieres by Russia’s most prestigious orchestra. His international reputation quickly soared.

His next symphony could not have been more different, a celebration of the 1917 October revolution, with a choral setting of verses extolling Lenin and the Bolsheviks. This tension between the personal, experimental and political would remain a feature of Shostakovich’s creative life. The many scores for cinema, theatrical productions and ballets that he wrote in these years would lead to his operas The Nose (1928), Orango (unfinished, 1932) and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1932). These contain some of Shostakovich’s most audacious music, exploring violent dissonances and fierce contrasts of colour, texture and tempo.

Brandon Jovanovich, John Daszak and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina Ismailova in the Royal Opera House’s 2018 production of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk.
Brandon Jovanovich, John Daszak and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina Ismailova in the Royal Opera House’s 2018 production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, premiered in 1934, was Shostakovich’s most ambitious work so far. It was also a huge success. But in January 1936, the Soviet dictator Stalin went to a performance. Two days later, the opera was denounced in an editorial in Pravda, the regime’s official paper, for dissonance, muddle and coarseness and dismissed as a “din”.

Shostakovich was in genuine danger. He reacted by cancelling the imminent premiere of his fourth symphony, the most daring orchestral piece he had yet written. It remained unperformed until 1961. Shostakovich later said the symphony pointed the way his music might have developed in less hostile circumstances.

A different way was instead embodied in the fifth symphony of 1938, which Shostakovich described as “the practical creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism”. Then and now one of the composer’s most popular pieces, it marks a recalibration and a reaffirmation of the composer’s style and methods.

Shostakovich’s fifth symphony conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky (in 1983), who led the first performance in 1938

Significantly, Shostakovich next turned to the more introspective forms of chamber music, beginning the corpus of 15 string quartets that, along with the symphonies and the theatre music, are the backbone of his achievement. But, when the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, he became again a very public figure, writing his seventh symphony – known as “the Leningrad” – while the city was under a brutal siege. The work was smuggled to the west (performed in the 1942 Proms) and acquired a formidable reputation. The eighth symphony, also written during the war, was darker and less rhetorical.

The return of peace brought fresh problems. In 1948, Soviet arts policy became more repressively conservative and nationalistic, and Shostakovich was again denounced. He responded with powerful chamber works, including the second piano trio and the song cycle From Jewish Poetry, written in the face of growing official antisemitism. Stalin’s death in 1953 did however cause some easing of Shostakovich’s public difficulties. The death of his wife Nina in 1954 marked a fraught period in his private life, which included a failed second marriage. The much played 10th symphony was a key work of this period.

The Borodin Quartet play Shostakovich’s third string quartet

Shostakovich’s productivity remained intense as he grew older. In the last 20 years of his life he produced five more symphonies, four more concertos and 10 more string quartets, as well as much incidental music, an unexpected operetta and several collections of songs. A third marriage in 1962 brought new happiness, but his health deteriorated steadily over many years, with heart attacks, falls and the onset of motor neurone disease among his physical trials. Many of his later works, notably the 14th symphony of 1969, are preoccupied with death. Shostakovich died of lung cancer in Moscow in 1975.

… and times

A propaganda poster from 1936, the year Stalin denounced Shostakovich’s music as “a din”. The text translates as ‘Long live Stalin’s generation of Stakhanov Heroes!’
A propaganda poster from 1936, the year Stalin denounced Shostakovich’s music as ‘a din’. The text translates as ‘Long live Stalin’s generation of Stakhanov Heroes!’ Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Russia into which Shostakovich was born in 1906 was a society in upheaval. War with Germany and Austria broke out when Shostakovich was eight. The tsar was overthrown by Lenin’s Bolsheviks when he was 11. Stalin came to power when he was 18. Millions were murdered and imprisoned when Shostakovich was in his 30s. Millions more died in the second world war before he was 40. Communism retained its totalitarian grip on Russia until after his death.

Shostakovich lived his life on the frontline of these events - he sometimes claimed he had seen Lenin’s train arrive in St Petersburg in 1917. People he knew well were destroyed by Stalin, others by Hitler. The time and place in which he lived shaped much of what the composer wrote – and how he wrote it.

This uniqueness has also shaped and stimulated much of what was – and still is – written about him. As an artist in the eye of the storm, Shostakovich’s music was entangled in the clash of civilisations triggered by the 1917 revolution. This gave rise, both during and after his life, to what have been called “the Shostakovich wars”, in which generations of musicians and writers have battled to claim his soul and, in some cases, to dismiss him.

The fiercest dispute surrounds the book Testimony (1979), by Solomon Volkov, which claimed to be a posthumous memoir “as related” to Volkov by Shostakovich and presents the composer’s music as a tapestry of carefully encoded political anti-Soviet dissidence. Its authenticity has been powerfully and plausibly challenged. More illuminatingly, the preoccupation with Shostakovich has produced works like Julian Barnes’s novel The Noise of Time (2016) and Stephen Johnson’s autobiographical How Shostakovich Changed my Mind (2018).

Why does he still matter?

Shostakovich is recognisably a Russian composer in the tradition of Tchaikovsky, but his musical debts include Stravinsky and Mahler. Yet the music is his own, not theirs. Western musicologists in the mid-20th century often dismissed Shostakovich’s music as shallow and conservative, unworthy to be spoken of alongside that of Schoenberg or the postwar modernists such as Boulez. Some still think this today. Yet it is Shostakovich who won the battle for public approval in the end.

If you think Shostakovich is always gloomy, try this kitsch 1963 Soviet film version of his 1957-58 operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki (with English subtitles)

What is beyond doubt is that he wrote some of the most powerful music of the 20th century, as well as some of the most cryptic, in some of the most difficult circumstances. He knew he was being watched. This awareness imbued his life and his music. This does not make him either a Soviet lickspittle or a heroic dissident. Winston Churchill’s remark that Russia was a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” could apply to Shostakovich. His music is rich and remarkable and, in the words of the Shostakovich expert Gerard McBurney, it belonged “to no one but himself”.

Great performers

Shostakovich (centre) with Galina and Mstislav Rostropovich after the performance of the 14th Symphony in 1973
Shostakovich (centre) with Galina and Mstislav Rostropovich after a performance of the 14th Symphony in 1973. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Shostakovich entrusted several premieres of his symphonies to Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was chief conductor from 1938 to 1988. Mravinsky’s recordings remain essential benchmarks. Kirill Kondrashin, who gave the first performance of the fourth symphony in 1961, and conducted the 1962 premiere of the “Babi Yar” 13th symphony, possessed a similar authenticity. So do the recordings by Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s son. The Borodin Quartet, founded in 1945, played a similarly central role in Shostakovich’s chamber music. Recordings of the quartets dating from its original Soviet era line-up have a special authority. Mstislav Rostropovich, briefly a member of the original Borodin quartet, was the dedicatee of both of Shostakovich’s cello concertos, of which he made definitive recordings. David Oistrakh was likewise the dedicatee of both of the violin concertos, of which the first is a particularly important work, written in 1947-48 but unperformed until after Stalin’s death. Shostakovich recorded some of his own piano music himself but his most ambitious piano work, his 24 Preludes and Fugues, was dedicated to the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, who recorded them four times between 1962 and 1992.



Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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