"I had to write about it, I felt that it was my responsibility, my duty. I had to write a requiem for all those who died, who had suffered...I had to describe the horrible extermination machine and express protest against it."
-Shostakovich on his Seventh Symphony depicting
the tragedies of World War II.
Shostakovich ends our journey through the great composers of all
time. And he adequately finishes this group of unparalleled men.
Shostakovich was probably a far greater composer than his music
exhibits. He was forced to downplay his enveloping themes and
create happy and joyous music due to the tyrannical rule of Russia
during his life. He was always supposed to write pieces to venerate
the leaders of his leader, whomever he may be because Russia was
going through a political revolution at the time. Nevertheless, in
his output we see the qualities that have been associated with
greatest of composers and his impact on the art has been thoroughly
Dmitri Shostakovich was born on September 25th, 1906 in St. Petersburg. At the time, his family was going an ongoing affluence but that would not last through the Russian Revolution. His father was a government engineer and his mother was a concert pianist. He first took lessons from his mother and eventually was entered into the Petrograd Conservatory. Here he composed his first symphony as a graduation bolster. It was very popular and one of his best-known pieces. It has become a piece in the international repertoire, and was warmly accepted.
He was extremely successful with his satirical opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. At first it was very successful, performing well over 150 times in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but after a journal accused it of being "chaos instead of music," his fortune quickly changed, and he was soon the scourge of the political heads. To reacquaint himself with his political nemeses, he wrote Symphony no. 5, subtitled "the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism." This reestablished a favorable reputation with his officials, but one can detect an ironical tone in that symphony. No. 7 is a wartime patriotic symphony called "Leningrad." Along with this composition, he won the Stalin Prizes for his famous Piano Quintet in g, op.57 in 1940. This patriotic attempt was caused by the onset of World War II. After composing these pieces, Shostakovich grew tired of being held back by Stalin and his officials, so he explored his ingenuity in chamber pieces, causing his to be condemned by the officials once again. In secret he composed heart-felt original pieces and only released them to his family and friends. Even the decree of his political leaders could not hold back the torrent of his music.
During these times he composed his first violin concerto, and continued his numerous string quartets. Upon Stalin's death in 1953, he released Symphony No. 10 as a personal statement of expression. This piece along with a few of his string quartets has a repetition of the initials of his name, DSCH (S being E-flat and H being B-natural). In the 1960's after sufficient liberation, his masterpiece Lady Macbeth was re-released and did wonderfully. He then went on to release Symphony No. 13, which although was dealing with the Nazi persecution of the Jews, was also considered a condemnation of Stalin.
Shostakovich suffered greatly during his last decade of life.
Much of the music he composed during this time was reflective on
death and its aura. Of his Symphony No. 14 he said, "The entire
symphony is my protest against death." Likewise in String Quartet No. 15,
it resonates the slow onset of death and its cruelty through six
slow Adagio movements. Shostakovich would go on to die on August
9th, 1975 in Moscow.
Shostakovich's music speaks more than he ever did during his life. His compilation of fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets is the most notable body of chamber music this century. Much of the music is reflective of his life. In his String Quartet in c, op.110, he supposedly said it reflected the victims of the Fascist war, but the recurring DSCH theme is ever-present. This suggests that the piece was more a self-portrait than a reflection on war. His last quartet, as previously described, displays his attitude towards death. His Piano Trio in e, op.67 is one of his most melodious pieces in commemorating the death of his good friend, Ivan Sollertinsky. The folk-tunes and rapid beat make it his most enjoyable trio to listen to.
Shostakovich's symphonies are equal to those of Gustav Mahler, Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms. The fact that he composed fifteen symphonies make them the most prolific of the twentieth century. His fifth is his most famous and most played symphony. Among others that are lively, like the fifth, is his seventh and tenth. The ominous darkness of Symphony No. 13 makes it also worth listening to, and is exemplary of Shostakovich is his darkest times.
As for his other chamber music, his quartets in themselves are
beautiful, yet difficult. His String Quartet in f,
op.122, is set in seven movements that are short yet enigmatic.
It drones a painful folk tune. In one section, the first violin
shrieks on her strings as the remaining three instruments play
ongoing dissonant chords. Yet it comes to an abrupt end when the
violin ends on a painfully high fading note. Much like
Shostakovich, his quartets were composed during times of despair
and melancholy. The reason that they are so powerful is that they
exist. They display the power of music, and how even in the
dreariest of times a true composer will never stop composing.
His Famous Compositions
His notable pieces include his first, fourth, fifth and tenth
symphonies, although any of his symphonies are works of art. His
two operas, The Nose, a satirical opera of a nose becoming a
political official, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk are both very
famous. However, his greatest contribution may be his fifteen
string quartets, which have previously been described.
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