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Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich (September 25, 1906 - August 9, 1975) was a Russian composer whose life closely overlapped that of the Soviet Union (1917-1991).

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Shostakovich was a child prodigy as both a pianist and composer (he once orchestrated the popular song "Tea for Two" in an hour on a bet). He began his composing career as a revolutionary modernist, full of cheeky humor, because that is what he believed the revolutionary Soviet government wanted. His first three symphonies and the ballet The Golden Age are of this kind. But in 1936 Joseph Stalin heard his bold verismo opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and caused an article to be published in Pravda denouncing Shostakovich for "formalism", a vague term that seems to have meant whatever Stalin didn't like.

The great mystery about Shostakovich's subsequent career is whether he became a dutiful Soviet citizen, as he always said in public, or whether he remained a secret rebel, pretending to serve the government while thumbing his nose at them in a way that the humorless bureaucrats couldn't guess? The second theory was put forth by Solomon Volkov in a 1979 book Testimony which purported to be Shostakovich's secret memoirs. Much controversy ensued and remains. Volkov's claimed provenance for the memoirs was shaky, but many who knew the composer testified that the content rang true.

Shostakovich's current high reputation rests on the assumption of rebelliousness, but much of the music is among the 20th century's finest regardless of its extramusical context. Shostakovich wrote some music which could be called banal, but for a spare somberness built out of simple materials, he is respected by many. One code known to exist in his music is the signature motif DSCH (D-E flat-C-B, in German notation, standing for his first initial and the first letters of his last name in German spelling), especially prominent in his Tenth Symphony and Eighth String Quartet, both among his finest. Humor also kept breaking out on occasion, and earned him another official reprimand in 1948.

Shostakovitch wrote parodies of evil, and it is easy to hear in his music that which Stalin found intolerable. His first cello concerto illustrates this. The opening movement abounds with motifs reminiscent of the "Star Wars" Death Star music - imperialistic, brooding, glorious, terrifying. But they are something else: drunken. Evil, to Shostakovitch, was a parody of itself. The regime takes itself so seriously, likens itself to Rome, but is, in fact, comprised of clowns.

And then the second movement. Heart-wrenching beyond description. The agents of evil may be clowns, but there is nothing funny about what they leave in their wake. Destroyed, abandoned souls cry out, bleating their loneliness and despair. They have watched their families destroyed, their friends taken away. They themselves languish in Siberian prisons, every day a struggle to survive. It is all in the music. And then, midway through the second movement, hope. Shostakovich is never without hope. A simple, tentative melody, as if its creator has forgotten how to create, tells us that the soul is not yet dead. It grows slightly in complexity and conviction, before being overwhelemd by the bleakness of reality.

Dmitri Shostakovich died on August 9, 1975 and was interred in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia.

His greatest works are generally considered to be his cycles of symphonies and string quartets, 15 of each. The greatest number of his symphonies were written in mid-career (1930s-40s) and the string quartets near the end (1960s-70s).