Dmitri Shostakovich | Biography


Other musicians have seen worse atrocities. But the most gifted composer to spend almost his entire life within a totalitarian system was Dmitri Shostakovich. It was left to him to bear witness to the corruption and cruelty of his age, and its many more subtle privations. Remarkably, he did so not through overt polemic but through satire, a sensitive choice of poetic references and a renewal of so-called ‘absolute music’ in his symphonies and his chamber music. Working under a censorious and often capricious Soviet regime, Shostakovich was required to write music that would please Party officials. By the same token, anything deemed unsuitable for the popular masses would have to be kept under wraps. The truth is more complex, however. Shostakovich’s beginnings were progressive. He was was brought up in the enlightened city of St Petersburg, where his main teacher was the composer Alexander Glazunov. His astonishingly accomplished First Symphony (1924–25) won him instant fame. His subsequent pieces betray a debt to his modern contemporaries Hindemith and Stravinsky. Russia in the 1920s was culturally relatively free, but this soon gave way to tight, centralised control. For a time Shostakovich resisted. He tapped into Alban Berg’s expressionism for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1930–32) and adopted a Mahlerian scale for his Fourth Symphony (1935–36). State tolerance of artistic freedom was short-lived. After one performance of Lady Macbeth, attended by an unamused Stalin, the party newspaper Pravda published a scathing editorial, ‘Chaos Instead of Music’. ‘Formalism’, an ill-defined catch-all for music that appeared to favour personal expression and a modern language over populist appeal, was now forbidden. The article threatened that things could ‘end badly’ for Soviet musicians who did not moderate their style, and for Shostakovich above all. A process of stylistic simplification began almost inevitably. Shostakovich had already experimented with a clearer mode of address in pieces like the good-humoured First Piano Concerto (1933) and the openly lyrical Cello Sonata (1934). But this period also saw the worst of the regime’s purges. No family was untouched. Shostakovich’s brother-in-law, mother-in-law and uncle were among those arrested. Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, his most highly-placed friend, was put on trial and shot. Beginning with his Fifth Symphony (1937), Shostakovich started to open up fresh possibilities for expressing private tragedy in music that ostensibly satisfied official diktat. In 1948 the Party issued a stronger official warning against ‘formalism’. Shostakovich began to hide his best work, and survived by writing film music and the odd patriotic cantata. One of these pieces, the First Violin Concerto (1947–48), expresses solidarity with the plight of the Jewish people. (It is one of a number of his works from this period that dared to do so.) Its magnificent slow movement is among the composer’s greatest achievements. As its repeating bass line grinds inexorably forward, seemingly rooted in the grey and everyday, the soloist still dares to hope for a radiant future. But, tellingly, the listener is not obliged to accept this image, let alone politicise it. Understandably cautious, David Oistrakh did not give its premiere until 1955. A welcome political relaxation came after Stalin’s death in 1953. Yet with the death of his first wife and the failure of a second marriage, Shostakovich sometimes seemed less certain of his creative direction. An exception is the Tenth Symphony, completed in 1953 and perhaps the best of them all. Another masterpiece is the tightly conceived First Cello Concerto (1959), written for Mstislav Rostropovich. The choral Thirteenth Symphony (1962) completes a symphonic trilogy on life in Russia and the Soviet Union with an explicitly sceptical conclusion. Although Shostakovich had at last been persuaded to join the Communist Party, the conformist quality of the music in fact gives maximal exposure to forthright poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. These condemn Russian anti-Semitism, the police state, the privations of Soviet womanhood and the pressures on the creative artist. Increasingly ill in later years, Shostakovich was devotedly cared for by his third wife, Irina. He appeared very much the establishment figure, but his creative projects were becoming ever more personal. He was shifting away from symphonies and the film work that kept food on the table, in favour of chamber music and song cycles. Communicating keenly, but in an increasingly enigmatic manner, these pieces draw on precedents set by Schoenberg and Britten as well as the work of his many composition pupils. His Fourteenth Symphony (1969) was a Brittenish song cycle dedicated to the British composer. The Fifteenth (1971) reintroduced some of the eccentric colour of his earliest pieces. A meditation on the meaning of life, death and the great musical tradition, it quotes Rossini, Wagner and his own back catalogue. His Eighth Quartet (1960) had been yet more obsessive in this regard. Here passages from other works are melded with endlessly recontextualized citations of Shostakovich’s personal monogram: D-S-C-H (the German note names for D-E flat-C-B). The late quartets assert their identities in other ways: the fifteenth and last (1974) is an unrelievedly bleak sequence of slow movements. Shostakovich’s music was inscrutably tied up with events around him. Time has not clarified matters. A true understanding of the man seems further away than ever. Did he bend to the regime, doing largely as he was told? Or are there subversive, dissenting messages encoded in those supposedly abstract works? Answering these questions has implications for the fundamental principles of art, politics and the relationship between the two. Nevertheless, Shostakovich’s oeuvre has moved from the periphery to the very centre of Western musical life. Even his greyest works now evoke a sympathetic response. Regardless of the scholarly arguments, it cannot be denied that Shostakovich pulled together Aesopian irony and a language of colossal expressive force.