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Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich (September 25, 1906 - August 9, 1975), 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 Mtzenk 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, did he cave in and become a dutiful Soviet citizen, as he always said in public, or did he remain 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 what 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).


  • Second (1927) - "To October" - highly experimental one-movement work. Chaos evolves into order, joined by a chorus shouting praise to Lenin.

  • Third (1929) - "May Day" - another experimental one-movement work with a chorus.

  • Fourth (1936) - he was working on this when the denunciation came, and set it aside for many years. Not as experimental as it may seem, it's a huge, Mahlerian work.

  • Fifth (1937) - the work with which Shostakovich earned his rehabilitation. One of his most popular and successful works, it is largely sombre despite the composer's official claim that he wished to write a positive work. The final movement, often criticized for sounding shrill, is declared in Testimony to be a parody of shrillness, and it is now often so taken.

  • Sixth (1939) - a symphony without a conventional opening movement, its style resembles the Fifth's but it is much less well known.

  • Seventh (1941) - "Leningrad" - composed during the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, it is the longest of the symphonies and was briefly very popular in the U.S. as the embodiment of the fighting Russian spirit, but it has been little heard since. Contains much of interest, but is best known for one episode, in which a jaunty, somewhat sinister tune is repeated over and over, getting louder each time, in the manner of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero". Bela Bartok parodied this movement in his Concerto for Orchestra.

  • Eighth (1943) - an extraordinarily sombre war symphony of great length. Its most remarkable moment is a scherzo depicting the rattle of machine guns with deadened strings and sudden trumpet calls.

  • Ninth (1945) - Shostakovich avoided the traditional peroration Ninth Symphony, and demands for a colossal victory celebration, with this small-scale work. Despite its serious moments, much of it is light and cheeky in the manner of the First.

  • Tenth (1953) - Often considered his masterpiece, it mixes a harrowing scherzo with serious movements evolving the DSCH theme. The finale, however, is often seen as frivolous, dodging many of the questions posed by the earlier movements.

  • Eleventh (1957) - "Year 1905)" - Purportedly a protesting depiction of the 1905 Winter Palace massacre[?], it is taken by Volkovites to protest the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary instead. Criticized by some for its simple construction and film music style, it has been praised by others for its strong emotional effect. Includes a harrowing musical depiction of the massacre itself.

  • Twelfth (1961) - "Year 1917)" - in the vein of its predecessor, but generally considered much less successful.

  • Thirteenth (1962) - "Babi Yar" - more of a song cycle than a symphony, it is a vocal setting of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko[?] on the WW II Babi Yar massacre and other topics. Released during a thaw in Soviet censorship.

  • Fourteenth (1969) - decidedly a song cycle rather than a symphony, it uses a small orchestra and sets 14 poems of death, by various authors.

  • Fifteenth (1971) - after such knowledge as the Fourteenth, what sequel? Also for a small orchestra, with a complex but quiet percussion battery, it is filled with cryptic allusions to music of Gioacchino Rossini and Richard Wagner.

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