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Dmitri Shostakovich

1906 - 1975

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (25 September [O.S. 12 September] 1906 – 9 August 1975) was a Russian pianist and composer of the Soviet period. He is regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century.

(b. St. Petersburg, September 25, 1906; d. Moscow, August 9, 1975)

Russian composer. His 15 symphonies are the most important addition to the symphonic repertoire by any composer born in the 20th century. He contributed significandy to other genres as well, among them opera, ballet, the concerto, and the film score, and to chamber and instrumental forms including song. Among his greatest works are 15 string quartets, which like the symphonies reflect a career-long preoccupation with finding an appropriate balance between musical form and emotional content. As the scholar Richard Taruskin has pointed out, Shostakovich “embodied the idea of the artist in society,” as distinct from the type of artist—aloof, hyperintellectual, self-absorbed—represented by many of his contemporaries in the mid-20th-century European avant-garde.

Shostakovich came from a relatively well-off family. His father was a government scientist and decent amateur singer, his mother a conservatory-trained pianist. He began lessons with her in 1915, progressing with astonishing rapidity, to the point where he entered the Petrograd Conservatory at 13 and studied with Maximilian Steinberg, Rimsky-Korsakov’s son-in-law. Shostakovich was a brilliant, talented, serious, yet irreverent student who quickly developed into a topflight pianist and composer of extraordinarily advanced, often sharp and satirical, music. His Symphony No. 1, composed in 1925, when he was 19, and premiered in May 1926, created an immediate international sensation. Grotesque elements in the scherzo presage later works, as do the overall tension, nervous energy, and youthful excitement. There is as well a hint of the iconoclastic attitude that would remain a part of the composer’s makeup (e.g., the cheeky opening bars, which are almost a mockery of a “serious” symphonic introduction, and the obbligato part for piano in the second movement).

Shostakovich flourished in the permissive atmosphere of postrevolutionary icono-clasm that lingered through the 1920s. Modernism—with its credo of experimentation, its celebration of both the abstract and the synthetic, and its implicit negation of the past—was the dominant trend in all Soviet arts. Not everything he wrote was first-rate. The success of the First Symphony brought a commission from the propaganda section of the Soviet state music publishing house; the result was the much weaker Symphony No. 2 (To October). It was the first in a long line of “official” or commemorative works on politically appropriate subjects that would include his Symphony No. 3 (1930) and Symphony No. 12 (1961). But between 1927 and 1930, Shostakovich also composed a string of musically daring and aesthetically provocative scores, among them his first opera, The Nose (after Gogol), and his first ballet, The Age of Gold.

Key Works

Shostakovich in 1925

As the deadly 1930s unfolded, Shostakovich continued along his risky path of innovation. The decade saw the composition of two highly significant works: the full-length opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District and the dissonant, sprawlingly Mahlerian Symphony No. 4. Nothing Shostakovich had attempted so far had been as large in scale or as powerful; now the young composer did want to be taken seriously. And when Stalin came to hear Lady Macbeth, in 1936, almost two years after its critically acclaimed Leningrad premiere, Shostakovich paid the price. The dictator ordered the publication of a review in Pravda excoriating the music and its creator. Never mind that The Nose had been far more radical—overnight, Shostakovich went from enfant terrible to pariah.

Dissatisfied with it and not wanting to risk running into another buzz saw, Shostakovich shelved the Fourth (it would not be premiered until 1961) and turned his energies to a new work. The Fifth Symphony would be different—an accessible, conventionally styled and structured work, beginning on a tragic note and leading to a triumphant, heroic conclusion. Shostakovich encouraged this view by allowing the piece to be declared “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” The Fifth created a sensation at its premiere in Leningrad in 1937, and Shostakovich was instantly rehabilitated. But those closest to the composer realized that there was a profound irony to the symphony’s finale. The triumph it seemed to portray was that of the machine that had ground him up. 

When, in the summer of 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Leningrad came under attack and Shostakovich became a symbol of his country’s spirited resistance (Time magazine ran a cover illustration of him in firefighter’s gear). He was evacuated to Kuibyshev on the Volga, where he completed his Seventh Symphony (Leningrad). The score (“Dedicated to the city of Leningrad”) received its premiere there on March 5,1942. Shostakovich composed his powerful Symphony No. 8 at the height of the war, in 1943. The Eighth looks into the abyss, probing the psychological desolation and evoking the eerie detachment that war induces in its survivors. In its finale, the enormous energies of the Symphony’s first four movements are not harnessed to a resolution— triumphant, tragic, or otherwise—but are left hanging, almost as if the symphony had ended with a question mark. The effect is utterly unexpected and as moving as anything Shostakovich wrote.

Symphony No. 1 in F minor Op. 10

1. Allegretto 0:00
2. Allegro 8:10
3. Lento 12:55
4. Allegro molto 20:38

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

00:00 - I. Moderato
14:56 - II. Allegretto (Scherzo)
20:04 - III. Largo
33:09 - IV. Allegro non troppo

Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 "Leningrad"

I. Allegretto 00:00 
II. Moderato (poco allegretto) 26:25 
III. Adagio 37:00 
IV. Allegro non troppo 53:40

Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93

I. Moderato  00:00   
II Allegro  21:20
III. Allegretto-Largo 25:32
IV. Andante. Allegro  37:35

Symphony no.14 op. 135

I. "De profundis" (Federico García Lorca) 0:00
II. "Malagueña" (Federico García Lorca) 4:10
III. "Loreley" (Guillaume Apollinaire) 7:03
IV. "Le Suicidé" (Guillaume Apollinaire) 16:00
V. "Les Attentives I" (On watch) (Guillaume Apollinaire) 22:18
VI. "Les Attentives II" (Madam, look!) (Guillaume Apollinaire) 25:13
VII. "À la Santé" (Guillaume Apollinaire) 26:51
VIII. "Réponse des Cosaques Zaporogues au Sultan de Constantinople" (Guillaume Apollinaire) 34:30
IX. "O, Del'vig, Del'vig!" (Wilhelm Küchelbecker) 36:30
X. "Der Tod des Dichters" (Rainer Maria Rilke) 40:30
XI. "Schlußstück" (Rainer Maria Rilke) 44:16

Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, Op. 35

I. Allegretto (00:00)
II. Allegretto (06:08)
III. Moderato (14:09)
IV. Allegro con brio (16:03)

Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op. 77

I. Nocturne (00:00)
II. Scherzo (12:27)
III. Passacaglia (18:25)
IV. Burlesque (32:47)

At the end of the war, in 1945, came Symphony No. 9. Many people expected a big work, exuding optimism and high purpose; instead the composer gave them something comical, quirky, a parody of Classical style. Dangerous it was not, yet ... in 1948, Shostakovich, along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and others, was censured for “decadent formalism” by the authorities. For the next five years, until Stalin’s death, Shostakovich kept his best music to himself. The Violin Concerto No. 1, composed for David Oistrakh, was withheld until 1955, and the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets and the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry were likewise locked in the drawer. In the months immediately following the tyrant’s demise, Shostakovich composed his Tenth Symphony, one of the handful of indisputable masterpieces penned in the second half of the 20th century. It offers a glimpse into the darkest and most desolate corners of the composer’s soul. In a gesture reserved for scores of special meaning to him, Shostakovich even signs his name, introducing his motto theme DSCH (D, E-flat, C, B) in the third movement and making it the climactic ingredient of the finale, which ends with the timpani hammering out the initials in gloriously ebullient strokes. The chilling, haunting, desolately severe Symphony No. 11 was written in 1956-57 and subtitled The Year 1905. By 1962, Shostakovich felt safe enough to again be controversial. In his Symphony No. 13, with bass soloist and male chorus, he set five poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, choosing for the very powerful opening movement the poem “Babi Yar,” an attack on anti-Semitism. Symphony No. 14 (1969), with bass and soprano soloists, is a song cycle on death, with texts by Federico Garcia Lorca and Rainer Maria Rilke among others, and the final work in the canon, Symphony No. 15 (1971), is a waking dream, a haunted fantasy: whimsical, strange, touching, with much that is kept secret, like Shostakovich himself.

Shostakovich wrote two concertos for piano, but achieved more in his concertos for string instruments, starting with the Violin Concerto No. 1. His first Cello Concerto, written for Rostropovich in 1959, is one of the supreme 20th-century contributions to that instrument’s repertoire; his Cello Concerto No. 2 (1966), also written for Rostropovich, is more introspective and nearly as good. The Violin Concerto No. 2 (1967) was, like the first, composed for Oistrakh.

Nine of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets were composed during the 1960s and 1970s, when he again felt free to write absolute music and take compositional risks. By far the most frequendy performed of the cycle, though hardly typical, is No. 8. Composed in three days during a visit to Dresden in 1960, it is pointedly tragic in tone and contains some of Shostakovich’s most compelling music. The entire collection of 15 has been called biographical, the private as opposed to the public history that can be read in the symphonies. Shostakovich also wrote sonatas for cello, for violin, and for viola (his last work, from 1975); two piano trios, the second of which is a profoundly poignant essay, one of his finest efforts; and several collections of piano pieces, including the 24 Preludes and Fugues, again on the studied and cerebral side but capable of giving great intellectual pleasure.

Shostakovich died a shattered man, in terms of his health and nerves, but with his artistry intact. With every year that passes, it appears more likely that he—the heir of Mahler and an artist of mordant, ironic, nervous character who became increasingly dark in later works as he contemplated death—will come to be seen as one of the iconic composers of the 20th century, alongside Stravinsky and Schoenberg. While their works had a much greater influence on the development of style, it was his music, not theirs, which in its darkness and pain, its litany of hope crushed, its sense of the grotesque, the absurd, the paranoid, and the vicious—above all its grasp of suffering and sadness—revealed the essential truth of the time.

Shostakovich in 1950

String Quartet No 8, in C Minor, Op. 110 

00:00 - I. Largo
05:36 - II. Allegro molto
08:18 - III. Allegretto
12:39 - IV. Largo
18:36 - V. Largo

Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57

00:00 - I. Prelude. Lento
04:52 - II. Fugue. Adagio
17:08 - III. Scherzo. Allegretto
21:01 - IV. Intermezzo. Lento
28:22 - V. Finale. Allegretto

Cello Sonata in D minor, Op. 40

00:00 Allegro non troppo
12:19 Allegro
15:49 Largo
24:47 Allegro

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Shostakovich’s second opera was based on a brutal tale about a woman who murders her father-in-law and husband. He composed a brilliant score mingling tragedy, comedy, and satire. The seamless, symphonic texture incorporates tension-building orchestral interludes between scenes, inspired perhaps by Berg’s Wozzeck. The erotic scenes shocked Prokofiev and the author of “Muddle Instead of Music” (in Pravda) who complained that “...‘love’ is smeared all over the opera in the most ‘vulgar’ manner”.

ACT ONE Katerina is bored in her marriage to Zinovy. The new labourer, Sergei, arrives, tries to molest the cook, Aksinka, and is wresded to the ground by the outraged Katerina.
However, by the end of the act Sergei and Katerina become lovers.
ACT TWO Katerina’s father-in-law catches Sergei leaving Katerina’s room and thrashes him. He orders Katerina to make a meal for him, which she poisons. Later Zinovy returns and is beaten to death by Katerina and Sergei.
ACT THREE Katerina and Sergei are about to marry. An old peasant finds Zinovy’s corpse and runs off to tell the police. At the wedding reception the police arrive and the couple give themselves up.

ACT FOUR Katerina and Sergei are now convicts in Siberia. Sergei rejects Katerina and makes advances to Sonyetka. At the end, the infuriated Katerina throws Sonyetka and herself into the river.

Shostakovich grave

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