Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Shostakovich was born in St Petersburg on 25th September, 1906, and was
the son of an engineer. He developed great skills at the piano at an early
age, and entered the Petrograd Conservatory at age 13, studying under
Maximilian Steinberg. His talents as a symphonist were recognized early on when
he gained worldwide acclaim for his magnificent First Symphony in 1926. This symphony was rich in orchestration
and on a grand-scale.
Over the next few years, Shostakovich became a well-respected composer and
pianist. Works following his first symphony include the opera The Nose
(1928), the ballet The Golden Age (1930), and a pair of symphonies
illustrating recent Russian history. The first was called October (1927)
and the other was May Day (1931).
Criticism from the authorities
It was with his opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk (1932) that Shostakovich ran into
trouble with the Soviet authorities. Although experimental work in all the
arts had been encouraged in Russia in the 1920's, the 1930's marked a time
when heavy restrictions in the arts prevented Russian composers from
exploring new ideas involving modernisation of music. Shostakovich was
one of the first to be criticised for using modern elements in his works.
His Lady Macbeth of Mzensk and Pravda operas almost cost him his job as a
composer, and as a result, his life was practically ruined.
Shostakovich was forced to go back to old formulas and methods, and his Fifth
Symphony was the first of his works to demonstrate this new direction. He described the work as 'a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism', and the piece won the approval of the public and even the authorities.
Later life and works
Shostakovich became a teacher of composition in the Leningrad Conservatory in 1937, and in 1941 he composed his 7th
Symphony, the Leningrad, in the midst of the war. Two years later, Shostakovich
settled in Moscow, teaching composition at the Conservatory. It was in the
mid-1940's that Shostakovich produced some of his greatest works. These
include the Eighth symphony (1943), the Piano Trio (1944), and the Violin
Concerto No.1 (1947-48). Shostakovich suffered yet another blow during the
Cold War when Russian authorities decided to become stricter on new
works being produced. At a Moscow conference in 1948, leading Soviet
composers, including Shostakovich, were heavily attacked and disgraced. He
still continued composing, later producing works such as his String Quartets
numbers 4 (1949) and 5 (1951), and his Tenth Symphony in 1953. This work was
another bold attempt at breaking away from old rules and methods, and despite
the fact that it was 'morally wrong', the work achieved the
same praise as his Fifth.
He completed his 13th symphony in 1962, and his 14th in 1969 (a
cycle of eleven songs about death). He visited the United States in 1949
and in 1958 toured western Europe. The European tour included Italy, where he had been
elected an honorary member of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in
Rome, and Great Britain, where he received an honorary doctorate of music at
the University of Oxford. He was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society's
Gold Medal in 1969. He died in Moscow, 1975.
Dmitri Shostakovich was a true master of his art, combining the colorful orchestral techniques of past Russian masters such as Rimsky-Korsakov with a highly intellectual sense of counterpoint and form. His music is uniquely dark and ominous, but there are many passages of bitter irony and sharp wit.
The tantalising emotional ambiguity of his music has made him one of the most
controversial figures in modern music. Was he a good Soviet who believed in the Communist cause, or was he deeply anguished by the oppressive restrictions placed on himself and his art? Recent research into the hidden 'meanings' behind his compositions suggests the latter, but it looks like he is going to keep historians guessing for a long time to come.
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Melody: Shostakovich's melodies are always immaculately shaped, and often some of the 20th century's most beautiful
Harmony: His music is usually rooted in tonality, but explores dissonances that definitely belong to the 20th century
Emotions: Shostakovich's music expresses sadness and despair more potently than any other music of the 20th century. It often contains moments of black humour that are often designed to make fun of the Soviet regime