Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906–1975)

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Soviet composer.

Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg (Leningrad) on 25 September (12 September, old style) 1906, and died in Moscow on 9 August 1975. Chronologically his life and work coincided with the Bolshevik Revolution and the historical events that ensued in Russia and the Soviet Union: civil war, industrialization, collectivization of the peasantry, Stalin's great purge, World War II, destalinization, and the Cold War and nuclear arms race. These cataclysms left an indelible mark on the composer's life and on his work. Unlike his older contemporaries Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), Shostakovich never emigrated or spent much time abroad. Living and creating inside Soviet Russia made him an eminently Soviet artist.

Shostakovich graduated from the Petrograd (later Leningrad) Conservatory in 1923 (piano) and 1925 (composition). His reputation was established with his First Symphony (1924–1925), performed in 1926. By the time of his death he had created fifteen symphonies, rivaling Beethoven and Mahler as one of the most prolific symphonic composers of all times. He had worked as a pianist at a movie theater as a student, and his fascination with the cinema influenced his successful work on film scores. His ventures into musical theater were less successful. His first opera, The Nose (first performed in 1930), was based on a satirical story by nineteenth-century writer Nikolai Gogol. It drew sharp criticism from the censors and proletarian zealots in art circles and the official press. His next opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (Katerina Izmaylova, 1934) presented a gloomy picture of provincial tsarist Russia. It angered Stalin and was condemned in Pravda. Shortly afterward the ballet Limpid Stream (1935) was also withdrawn from the repertoire and banned.

The Soviet regime exerted a rigid control of the arts, and Shostakovich was forced to create music that the regime considered appropriate, namely film scores, grandiose symphonies, and programmatic cantatas and songs based the on lyrics of state-approved poets. He wrote music for the major blockbusters of the Stalinist era: Trilogy about Maxim (1934–1938; an epic about the making of a communist hero in prerevolutionary Russia); The Great Citizen (1938–1939; based on murdered Bolshevik Sergei Kirov's life and death); The Young Guard (1947–1948; about the young communist group's exploits under the Nazi occupation); The Fall of Berlin (1949; glorifying Stalin's command during World War II); and Unforgettable Year 1919 (1951; depicting Stalin's genius during the civil war). After Stalin's death he wrote much less ideologically compromised film music (e.g., Gadfly [1955], Hamlet [1964], and King Lear [1971]).

The fulfillment of state orders for film scores gave the composer relative freedom in his symphonic, concerto, and chamber music works as well in song cycles. The official acceptance of his symphonies was uneven and reflected the ups and downs of the country's political life. The Second (October) (1927) and Third (Labor Day) (1929) symphonies, set to the lyrics of now-forgotten communist poets, were hailed. The Fourth (1935–1936) was withdrawn during rehearsal and not performed for thirty years. The Fifth (1937) was heralded as a triumph of socialist realism in music. The Sixth (1939) was silenced. The Seventh (1941), the famous Leningrad Symphony, was proclaimed a triumph of antiwar art and played around the world. The Ninth (1945) was briefly banned. The Eleventh (1957) bore the subtitle The Year 1905: the year of the revolution Vladimir Lenin called the great rehearsal for the 1917 Bolshevik triumph. The TwelfthSymphony (1961) was dedicated to Lenin. The Thirteenth (1962) was written to the poetry of young nonconformist poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Its first part, "Babi Yar" (the name of a ravine in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, where the Nazis massacred tens of thousands of Jews in World War II), infuriated the authorities, and Nikita Khrushchev personally attacked Yevtushenko. Only his last symphony, the Fifteenth (1971), a genuine farewell to life, was not manipulated by the authorities.

The Soviet regime's treatment of Shostakovich was typical of official suppression and control of the arts during the Stalinist period and in the years after Stalin's death. But the regime also made Shostakovich the most officially honored composer in modern history. He was the winner of five Stalin Prizes and of the Lenin and State Prizes, a Hero of Socialist Labor, and a People's Artist of the USSR. He was a longtime deputy to the Supreme Soviet (parliament) and for the last fifteen years of his life he was a member of the Communist Party and worked as a head of the Union of Composers of Russian Federation enjoying luxurious apartments, cottages, cars, and trips abroad.

The uniqueness of Shostakovich's standing lay in the fact that he was totally integrated into the political and artistic hierarchy and at the same time was revered around the world and especially in the West as one of the greatest composers of the century. In the context of the Cold War, the detente achieved on the Shostakovich front was unusual. It was challenged four years after his death in a book entitled Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov, published in the United States. The book depicted the composer as an embittered and suffering man, at best an internal émigré within his own country, at worst a secret dissident, if not anticommunist and anti-Soviet. The book followed a tradition long established in the West after the Bolshevik Revolution, that of publishing explosive revelatory memoirs, letters, diaries, and testimony of famous and powerful Soviet personalities (e.g., the foreign minister Maxim Litvinov or the alleged British spy and colonel of military intelligence Oleg Penkovsky). What united these bestsellers was the fact that by the time of publication their "authors" were dead and in most cases the books appeared only in translation and the Russian original was not made public.

The case of Testimony looked equally suspect. In 1980 U.S. scholar Laurel Fay convincingly showed that the book was partly based on materials published in the Soviet press. Its anti-Soviet and anticommunist portions were made up largely of dissident oral history, stories, and legends that abounded in Russian intellectual circles in the second half of the twentieth century. The book's defenders were vehement in its support, sometimes confusing the notion of the veracity of a document with its authenticity, which was unequivocally and repeatedly denied by the composer's widow, Irina Shostakovich. The Testimony controversy fore-shadowed a pattern of justifying and rehabilitating iconic Soviet personalities of the twentieth century that emerged in post-Soviet Russia. The stream of fashionable "internal suffering" revelations and confessions, revisionist in nature, became a trend and included many honored Soviet writers, musicians, ballerinas, painters, filmmakers, and actors who were well integrated in the Soviet hierarchies.

The Shostakovich controversy, far from being resolved, has helped to enhance the stature of the composer as one of the most enigmatic, prolific, and interpreted musicians of the past century. Together with his countrymen Stravinsky and Prokofiev, he became a musical ambassador of Russian culture on a worldwide scale.

See alsoProkofiev, Sergei; Soviet Union; Stravinsky, Igor.


Primary Sources

Shostakovich, Dmitri. Dmitry Shostakovich: About Himself and His Times. Compiled by L. Grigoryev and Ya. Platek. Translated from the Russian by Angus and Neilian Roxburgh. Moscow, 1981.

——. Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, 1941–1975, with a commentary by Isaak Glikman. Translated by Anthony Phillips. Ithaca, N.Y., 2001.

Secondary Sources

Blackstock, Paul W. Agents of Deceit: Frauds, Forgeries, and Political Intrigue among Nations. Appendix by George F. Kennan. Chicago, 1966.

Brown, Malcolm Hamrick, ed. A Shostakovich Casebook. Bloomington, Ind., 2004.

Fay, Laurel E. Shostakovich: A Life. New York, 2000.

Fay, Laurel E., ed. Shostakovich and His World. Princeton, N.J., 2004.

Ho, Allan B., and Dmitry Feofanov. Shostakovich Reconsidered. London, 1998.

Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York, 1979.

Leonid Maximenkov