Dmitri Shostakovich: Biography & Music

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Dmitri Shostakovich was a pivotal figure in Soviet Russian music. His work oscillated between denouncement and exemplar of the state's music. This lesson will examine the life and the music of Dmitri Shostakovich.

The Life and Times of Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer and pianist, was born on September 25th, 1906, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and he died on August 9th, 1975, of lung cancer. With the October Revolution in 1917, Shostakovich lived nearly his entire life in Soviet Russia, an important theme throughout his life. He was an only child. He married four times, to three different women (he and his first wife divorced then were remarried). He had two children, Maxim and Galina. Interestingly, Maxim continued the family trade and became a pianist and conductor, and Maxim's son Dmitri is also a pianist. Shostakovich was a nervous, anxious, and (perhaps) obsessive man. He was frequently ill, due to nerves. He was also eager to please, which makes his oscillation from critical acclaim to denouncement, acclaim, denouncement, and finally acclaim again peculiar.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich began piano lessons with his mother at 9 years old. He was an incredibly gifted musician and was admitted to the Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) Conservatory at 13. His composition studies were the beginning of his imposed state guidance: his teachers tried to influence his work in the classic Russian style like Borodin, Risky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Cui, and Balakirev. Instead, Shostakovich favored to work of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, putting him at odds with the preferred compositional style.

Critical Reception and Denouncement

Shostakovich's first symphony was seen as a critical success at the time of its performance, especially given that he composed it at 19 as his graduation piece from the Petrograd Conservatory. His next two symphonies were less critically acclaimed, due to their more experimental harmonic nature. Shostakovich's music was equal parts classical, satirical, and grotesque, as will be explored later.

Shostakovich's first opera was called, 'The Nose' and it was poorly received critically. 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District' (1934) was Shostakovich's second opera, and it stands as an important tipping point in Shostakovich's career as a composer. Specifically, in 1936 it was criticized by party leadership in the state run newspaper Pravda in the article 'Muddle Instead of Music.' Ironically, up to this point the composition was seen as a socialist success, an exemplar of Socialist realism. It appears that Stalin and other party leadership that were at a performance were startled by the loud noises in the brass and percussion. This denouncement led to a 'voluntary withdrawal' of his fourth symphony (voluntary like do this or we'll do it for you…). We'll look later at what made his music perhaps too avant-garde for the state.

With his fifth symphony (1937) Shostakovich came back into the good graces of the state. The piece is largely tuneful and conservative. Critics claimed he learned from his mistakes. It could be argued he simply learned how to further hide his intent. Either way, his music was back in favor with the state, and he no longer needed to fear for his life. Unfortunately, it only lasted so long.

Denounced Again

By the end of the Second World War, Shostakovich was already beginning to fall out of favor with the state again. His eighth symphony had tracked back to the tragic, as opposed to the triumphant, which was heard in his fifth symphony. He poked the bear a few more times with his ninth symphony, an intentionally overtly tuneful piece that Stalin interpreted as mocking. In 1948 he was fired from his position teaching composition at the Leningrad Conservatory (a position he was appointed to in 1937). His music was largely banned from performance as well.

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