September 25, 2016

Listen and Learn: Shostakovich Turns 110


Listen and Learn: Shostakovich Turns 110

A composer of symphonies, concertos, piano music, chamber music, ballets, and film scores, Dmitry Shostakovich created classical music that spoke to modern times. Composing during the Soviet period, Shostakovich had to square state mandates for ideologically appropriate music with his own creative inclinations – usually choosing the latter, and at his own expense.

Born in St. Petersburg on September 12, 1906 (by the old calendar – that’s September 25 by today's calendar), Shostakovich studied piano at the Petrograd Conservatory. He achieved world-wide acclaim with his First Symphony, completed in 1925 when he was just 19. This was during the early years of the Soviet Regime, when there was an atmosphere of artistic freedom – hence the influence of the avant-garde to be heard in Symphony No.1, which has vaudevillian as well as satirical elements in addition to more traditional classical movements.

The avant-garde was not to last. In 1928, Joseph Stalin launched his first Five-Year Plan, which, among other things, meant that the strong hand of the Soviet government was to control and mandate what Russian artists produced.

Like many artists struggling for freedom of expression within a regimented artistic system, Shostakovich had trouble confining his creativity to permissible forms. His noteworthy opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, is a prime example: Stalin attended a performance of the opera in 1936 and was so offended by it that he banned both the opera and its creator.

This response was devastating to the 30-year-old Shostakovich. The Soviet-run press attacked the young composer, and his Fourth Symphony (1935), not yet performed, was black-listed.

Yet Shostakovich was not to be beaten. He composed his Fifth Symphony in 1937 – a work that, for an artist who had been in trouble with the regime once before, might have been expected to be a trivial, unremarkable, and safe piece of music. That was not the case. Shostakovich's Fifth is the statement of an artist who will not be kept quiet. Dark and forceful, it was met with wide public appeal, and was even accepted by the Soviet authorities. The Fifth marked a turning point in Shostakovich's career; from here on, his personal style and directness are well defined.

Having redeemed himself, Shostakovich was appointed to the faculty of the Leningrad (formerly Petrograd) Conservatory in 1937, where he taught and composed until moving to Moscow in 1943. The post-WWII Soviet Union imposed strict rules on musical composition. It was not to reflect the times; rather, it was to be simple, light and upbeat in nature. They wanted music that presented to the world a country of happy and healthy citizens. Shostakovich's compositions did not adhere to the state’s demands; his later symphonies became more grim and he was, once again, officially attacked and disgraced by the authorities in 19848. With this second fall from grace, he was not even allowed to teach.

Shostakovich composed a compromise with Song of the Forests, an oratorio written in 1949. Responding to the state mandate for accessible music as well as official disapproval, Shostakovich wrote Song of the Forests to stress positive and living themes. The work was inspired by the reforestation projects of the Soviet Union and the lyrics, just to be on the safe side, profusely praised Stalin and his agenda. Stalin was overjoyed with the work and, in 1950, awarded it the Stalin Prize, First Grade. Stalin died in 1953 and, after a decade of heavy criticism regarding his policies, the lyrics of Song of the Forests had to be changed if the work was to ever be heard again; the lyricist, Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, rewrote the lyrics in 1962 – and those are the ones to be heard today.

With the exception of Song of the Forests and some light string quartets, Shostakovich’s musical proclivities did not coincide with the demands of socialist realism. The rigid control on composing ended with Stalin’s death in 1953; in that year, Shostakovich presented his Tenth Symphony: it was bold, direct, and promptly recognized for its excellence.

The rest of his life’s work went on unhindered. From the death of his contemporary Sergei Prokofiev in 1953 until his own death in 1975, Shostakovich was the undisputed leader of Russian music. Known to be a true Communist, he refused to have his creative activities dictated to him or have his work used as propaganda for the state. It was the tension of this apparent contradiction that produced his greatest works.

You Might Also Like

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
A Taste of Chekhov

A Taste of Chekhov

This compact volume is an introduction to the works of Chekhov the master storyteller, via nine stories spanning the last twenty years of his life.
Chekhov Bilingual

Chekhov Bilingual

Some of Chekhov's most beloved stories, with English and accented Russian on facing pages throughout. 
Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
Turgenev Bilingual

Turgenev Bilingual

A sampling of Ivan Turgenev's masterful short stories, plays, novellas and novels. Bilingual, with English and accented Russian texts running side by side on adjoining pages.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955