The Life and Music of Dimitri Shostakovich:
Dimitri Shostakovich was born in 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Within the space of sixty-nine years, Shostakovich made an unforgettable impact on music and became one of the most important composers of the 20th century. During his career he wrote fifteen symphonies, fifteen string quartets, six concerti and two operas along with many chamber works, piano works and pieces for theatre and film. This is an incredible output for a composer but what makes them all the more remarkable is the situation under which they were composed. His whole musical career was spent within Russia’s Communist system which left him with the constant struggle to try and find the balance between the demands of the State and his own artistic needs.
Dimitri was the second of three children born to his father, Dimitri, and mother Sofiya. Both his grand father and father were interested in left wing politics, involved in the revolution and trade unions. His father was a government engineer and his mother a piano teacher. It was his mother, Sofiya, who gave Shostakovich his first piano lessons. She discovered that he had a special aptitude for music at the age of eight. Shostakovich displayed a prodigious talent as a pianist with an extraordinary gift for picking up pieces by ear and replaying them.
At the age of thirteen, in 1919, Shostakovich went to study piano and composition at the Petrograd Conservatory in Petersburg. In 1925 he submitted his first symphony at the age of eighteen as his graduation piece. The symphony was so highly praised that the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra performed it in 1926. It went on to become one of his most popular works.
After his graduation, Shostakovich began his career as a composer. It was a very difficult time in post revolutionary Russia. During this time, the Soviet regime, led by Stalin, was very strict and had implemented many rules surrounding the arts. The government demanded that art had to benefit the political ideologies of the state. Art could also not challenge political authority or ideologies; it had to back the government and their beliefs. This was a concept that Stalin introduced in 1932 and became known as socialist realism. Socialist realism was an excuse to censor all of the arts. It was a form of government control to allow them to portray the government in the best possible light through the arts. Until the death of Stalin, it was imperative that Shostakovich abided by these rules. This control brought many problems for Shostakovich.
In 1936, after the opera’s initial success, the government condemned Shostakovich for “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”. Once Stalin saw the opera he was very critical of its use of adultery, murder and suicide. This along with his condemned fourth symphony began Shostakovich’s battle with Soviet censorship. He was now on Stalin’s radar and was being constantly monitored and feared for his life. For his political safety, he decided to concentrate on writing symphonies and film scores that would please the government regime, yet at the same time allow him to keep his own voice. In 1937 Shostakovich revealed his Fifth Symphony. It was a more conservative piece of work than before. It was a huge success and was lauded by the public, authorities and critics alike.
In 1941 war broke out between Russia and Nazi Germany. The Nazis took over Leningrad, St. Petersburg. All roads in and out of Leningrad were blocked and food delivery ceased. The city’s residents were doomed and by December there was an average of five thousand people dying a day. During the first few months Shostakovich was still in Leningrad but was evacuated near the end of the year. This experience had a profound effect on him.
It led Shostakovich to write his most famous contribution to the war, the Seventh Symphony. It was a written protest to the Nazis invasion and as a tribute to the...
References: Kay, N. 1971. Shostakovich. Oxford University Press, London.
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