Dmitri Shostakovich, born on September 25, 1905, started taking piano lessons from his mother at the age of nine after he showed interest in a string quartet that practiced next door. He entered the Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg, later Leningrad) Conservatory in 1919, where he studied the piano with Leonid Nikolayev until 1923 and composition until 1925 with Aleksandr Glazunov and Maksimilian Steinberg. He participated in the Chopin International Competition for Pianists in Warsaw in 1927 and received an honorable mention, after which he decided to limit his public performances to his own works to separate himself from the virtuoso pianists.
Prior to the competition, he had had a far greater success as a composer with the First Symphony (1924-25), which quickly achieved worldwide recognition. The symphony was influenced by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky, Paul Hindemith, and Sergey Prokofiev. The cultural climate in the Soviet Union was, compared to the Soviet Union at its peak, free at the time. Even the music of Igor Stravinsky and Alban Berg, then in the avant-garde, was played. Bela Bartok and Paul Hindemith visited Russia to perform their own works, and Shostakovich toyed openly with these novelties. His first opera, The Nose, based on the satiric Nikolay Gogol story, displayed a thorough understanding of what was popular in Western music combined with his "dry" humor. Not surprisingly, Shostakovich's undoubtedly finer second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (later renamed Katerina Izmaylova), marked a stylistic retreat. However, this new Shostakovich was too avant-garde for Stalin.
In 1928, Joseph Stalin inaugurated his First Five-Year Plan, an "iron hand fastened on Soviet culture," (Johnson) and in music a direct and popular style was demanded. Avant-garde music and jazz were banished, and for a while even Tchaikovsky was looked down upon. Shostakovich remained in good favor for a time, but it has been said that it was Stalin's personal anger at what he heard when he attended a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936 that sparked the official condemnation of the opera and of its creator. The focus of the opera was based around murder, conspiracy, and trickery, all of which were the worst things that a Russian could speak of.
Shostakovich was brutally attacked in the official press, and both the opera and the yet to be performed Fourth Symphony (1935-36) were banned. His next major work was his Fifth Symphony (1937), which he described as "a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism." (Salisbury) An insignificant, but dutifully "optimistic" work might have been appropriate; what emerged was "compounded largely of serious, even somber and elegiac music, presented with a compelling directness" (Kay) that won over the public and even the authorities with its stately rhythms and straightforward ideas.
With the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich escaped from the stylistic ambiguity of his earlier works, laying a foundation for the personal style that he used in his fortress of compositions, which was so different from his Fourth. The Fifth represented a drastic shift in technique. The Fourth Symphony had been a free propagation of melodic ideas, in contrast to the first movement of the Fifth, which was marked by melodic concentration: "Certain particles providing the main bases of music that grows organically to a relentless climax." (Blokker) This style of thematic composition is seen elsewhere in the work through his adaptation of the monolithic Baroque structures of the fugue and chaconne, each of which is based on the constant repetition of a single melodic idea. This style of composition continued to be an integral part of Shostakovich's music.
In 1937 Shostakovich became a composition teacher in the Leningrad Conservatory, where he remained until the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. He composed his Seventh Symphony (1941) in...
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