Dmitri Shostakovich Biography

Dmitri Shostakovich Biography

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich (September 25, 1906 - August 9, 1975) was a Russian composer whose life closely overlapped that of the Soviet Union (1917-1991). His greatest works are generally considered to be his cycles of symphonies and string quartets, 15 of each. The symphonies are evenly spaced throughout his career, while the string quartets are concentrated near the end (1960s-70s).


Early life

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Shostakovich was a child prodigy as both a pianist and composer. Shostakovich's family seems to have been politically liberal and tolerant (one of his uncles was a Bolshevik, but the family also sheltered far-right extremists). In 1918, he wrote a funeral march in memory of two leaders of the Kadet party, murdered by Bolshevik sailors. He was allowed to enter the Petrograd (later Leningrad) Conservatory in 1922, where he was taught composition by Alexander Glazunov. However, he suffered for his perceived lack of political zeal, and initially failed his exam in Marxist methodology in 1926. His letters during this period present a mixed picture: one letter (24 Jan 1924 to Tatyana Glivenko) says that he is "very sad that V I Lenin has died", while later ones joke about "Saint Leninburg". His main musical achievement was the First Symphony (1925), written as his graduation piece.

In 1927 Shostakovich wrote his Second Symphony (subtitled To October), an experimental work joining a polyphonic beginning, a meditative central episode which Shostakovich described as the "death of a child" (letter to Boleslav Yavorsky), and a triumphant final chorus. While writing the symphony, he also began his satirical opera The Nose, based on the story by Gogol. In 1929, the opera was criticised as "formalist" by RAPM, the Stalinist arts organisation.

The Third Symphony (May First) is reminiscent of the second: mostly dark in mood, with a major key choral finale.

From 1927 or 1929 to 1931 or 1932 he worked at TRAM, a proletarian youth theatre. Although he did little work in this post, it shielded him from ideological attack. Most of this period appears to have been spent writing his verismo opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The early 1930s were a relatively easy period: he married his first wife, Nina Varzar, in 1932, while Lady Macbeth was first performed in 1934 and was immediately successful.

First denunciation

1936 was Shostakovich's annus terribilis. The year began with a series of attacks on him in Pravda, instigated by Stalin and condemning Lady Macbeth as formalist. Commissions consequently began to dry up, and his income fell by about three quarters. The Fourth Symphony entered rehearsals, but the political climate made performance impossible. It was not performed until 1960, but Shostakovich did not repudiate the work: it retained its designation as his fourth symphony.

The Fifth Symphony of 1937 seems something of a compromise: it is not overtly political, either for or against the regime, and it is musically conservative without being simplistic. It was a success, and is still one of his most popular works. Notably, it is at this time that Shostakovich composed the first of his string quartets. His chamber works allowed him to experiment and express ideas which would have been unacceptable in his more public, symphonic pieces.

In September 1937, he began to teach composition at the Conservatory, which provided some financial security, but interfered with his own creative work.


There is considerable uncertainty about the genesis and meaning of the Seventh Symphony. Officially, it was said to have been composed in response to the German invasion, represented by the first movement ostinato theme. Other accounts say that the work was begun before the invasion, and that the "invasion theme" is actually a "Stalin theme" or a "Soviet theme".

The Eighth Symphony of 1943 is a long and dark work, more obviously a "war symphony" than its predecessor. It proved to be too dark for the authorities, and was soon banned until 1960.

Second denunciation

1948 saw Shostakovich again denounced for formalism. His next major work was the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, which unsurprisingly did not restore him to favour with the strongly anti-Semitic Soviet regime. There is some dispute over whether he realised the dangers of writing such a work at such a time. Laurel Fay has argued that he was attempting to conform with official policy by adopting folk song as his inspiration, while others see the work as conscious and principled support for the Jews at the time of their persecution.

Stalin's death in 1953 allowed Shostakovich's official rehabilitation. This was marked by his Tenth Symphony. The symphony contains a number of musical codes (notably the DSCH and Elmira motifs) and quotations, the meaning of which is still debated.

Interpretation of the Eleventh Symphony is disputed: it can be seen as referring to the attempted Russian_Revolution_of_1905, the 1956_Hungarian_Revolution or both.

Joining the Party

1960 marked another turning point in Shostakovich's life: his joining of the Communist Party. This event has been interpreted variously as a show of commitment, a mark of cowardice, or as having been forced. On the one hand, the apparat was undoubtedly less repressive than it had been prior to Stalin's death. On the other, his son recalled that the event reduced Shostakovich to tears, and he later told his wife Irina that he had been blackmailed. Lev Lebidinsky has said that the composer was suicidal (Wilson, p. 340).

Shostakovich's musical response to this personal crisis was the Eighth String Quartet, which like the Tenth Symphony incorporates a raft of codes and quotations. Again, the DSCH motif dominates, and he quotes the song "Tormented by Grevious Bondage". In a letter to Isaak Glikman (16 July 1960), he described the work as "a quartet dedicated to my memory".

1962 saw Shostakovich again turn to the subject of anti-Semitism in his Thirteenth Symphony (Babi Yar). The symphony sets a number of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the first of which commemorates a massacre of the Jews during the Second World War. Opinions are divided as to how great a risk this was: the poem had been published in Soviet media, and was not banned, but it was controversial, and Yevtushenko was forced to add a stanza depicting the fact that Russians and Ukranians died alongside the Jews at Babi Yar.

Later life

In later life, Shostakovich suffered from chronic ill-health. Most of his later works- the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies, and the late quartets- are dark and introspective. They have attracted much critical favour in the west, as they do not pose the same problems of interpretation as the earlier, more public pieces.

Death and legacy

Dmitri Shostakovich died on August 9, 1975 and was interred in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia. His son Maksim Dmitrievich Shostakovich is a pianist and conductor. He was the dedicatee and first performer of some of his father's works.


Shostakovich's response to official criticism is disputed. It is clear that outwardly he conformed with the state, producing an oratorio praising Stalin, reading speeches and putting his name to articles expressing the government line. It is also generally agreed that he disliked the regime, a view confirmed by his family, his letters to Isaak Glikman (English translation: Faber & Faber, 2001), and the satirical cantata "Rayok", ridiculing the "anti-formalist" campaign, which was kept hidden until after his death.

What is uncertain is the extent to which Shostakovich expressed his opposition to the state in his other music. The revisionist view was put forth by Solomon Volkov in the 1979 book Testimony which claimed to be Shostakovich's memoirs, dictated to Volkov. The book claimed that many of the composer's works contained coded anti-government messages. This view has subsequently been supported by his children, Maxim and Galina, and many Russian musicians. His widow, Irina, supports the general thesis but denies the authenticity of Testimony. Other prominent revisionists are Ian MacDonald, whose book The New Shostakovich put forward more interpretations of his music, and Elizabeth Wilson, whose Shostakovich: A Life Remembered provides testimony from many of the composer's acquaintances.

The anti-revisionists contest the authenticity of Testimony, alleging that Volkov compiled it from a combination of recycled articles, gossip, and possibly some information direct from the composer. More broadly, they argue that the significance of Shostakovich is in his music rather than his life, and that to seek political messages in the music detracts from, rather than enhances, its artistic value. The anti-revisionists are represented by Laurel Fay, Richard Taruskin and Malcolm Brown.

Shostakovich's current high reputation is partly political, and partly musical. Some of his music has been called banal, but for a spare somberness built out of simple materials, he is respected by many. One code known to exist in his music is the signature motif DSCH (D-E flat-C-B, in German notation, standing for his first initial and the first letters of his last name in German spelling), which is especially prominent in his Tenth Symphony and Eighth String Quartet, both among his finest works.


Symphony No. 1 (1925) - a young, fresh work, his conservatory thesis, lively and witty in a manner close to Igor Stravinsky or Sergei Prokofiev.

Symphony No. 2 (1927) - "To October" - highly experimental one-movement work. Chaos evolves into order, joined by a chorus shouting praise to Lenin.

Symphony No. 3 (1929) - "May Day" - another experimental one-movement work with a chorus.

Symphony No. 4 (1936) - This work was not performed until 1960, having been withdrawn during rehearsals following the composer's denunciation. There are two long, Mahlerian outer movements on either side of a short, middle movement.

Symphony No. 5 (1937) - the work with which Shostakovich earned his rehabilitation. One of his most popular and successful works, it is largely sombre despite the composer's official claim that he wished to write a positive work. The final movement, often criticized for sounding shrill, is declared in Testimony to be a "parody" of shrillness, and it is now often so taken.

Symphony No. 6 (1939) - a symphony without a conventional opening movement, its style resembles the Fifth's but it is much less well known.

Symphony No. 7 (1941) - "Leningrad" - the longest of the symphonies. Composition was begun during the siege of Leningrad during World War II and completed in Moscow; later it was performed in the besieged city. It became very popular for a brief time as the embodiment of the fighting Russian spirit. It contains much of interest, but is best known for one episode, the "invasion" sequence, in which a jaunty, somewhat sinister tune is repeated over and over, getting louder each time, in the manner of Maurice Ravel's Bolero. Bela Bartok parodied this movement in his Concerto for Orchestra.

Symphony No. 8 (1943) - an extraordinarily sombre war symphony of great length. Its most remarkable moment is a scherzo depicting the rattle of machine guns with deadened strings and sudden trumpet calls.

Symphony No. 9 (1945) - Shostakovich avoided the traditional peroration Ninth Symphony, and demands for a colossal victory celebration, with this small-scale work. Despite its serious moments, much of it is light and cheeky in the manner of the First.

Symphony No. 10 (1953) - Often considered his masterpiece, it mixes a harrowing scherzo with serious movements evolving the DSCH theme. The finale, however, is often seen as frivolous, dodging many of the questions posed by the earlier movements.

Symphony No. 11 (1957) - "Year 1905" - Purportedly a protesting depiction of the 1905 Winter Palace massacre, it is taken by revisionists to protest the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary instead. Criticized by some for its simple construction and film music style, it has been praised by others for its strong emotional effect. It includes a harrowing musical depiction of the massacre itself.

Symphony No. 12 (1961) - "Year 1917" - in the vein of its predecessor, but generally considered much less successful.

Symphony No. 13 (1962) - "Babi Yar" - more of a song cycle than a symphony, it is a vocal setting of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko on the WW II Babi Yar massacre and other topics. Released during a thaw in Soviet censorship.

Symphony No. 14 (1969) - decidedly a song cycle rather than a symphony, it uses a small orchestra and sets 14 poems of death, by various authors.

Symphony No. 15 (1971) - Also for a small orchestra, with a large but quiet battery of percussion, it is filled with cryptic allusions to music of Gioacchino Rossini, Richard Wagner, and Gustav Mahler.

Dmitri Shostakovich Biography

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Dmitri Shostakovich Piano Sheet Music
    Dmitri Shostakovich - 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op. 87  By Dmitri Shostakovich. DSCH. Size 8.5x11.25 inches. 172 pages. Published by DSCH.
      Dmitri Shostakovich: Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102 for Piano and Orchestra  Composed by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Op. 102. For 2 pianos (four hands). Two copies needed for performance. Format: piano duet book. With solo part and piano reduction. 20th century. F Major. 9x12 inches. Published by International Music Co.
    Dmitri Shostakovich: Easier Works  Composed by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). For piano. Schirmer Library Vol.2043. Format: piano solo book. 20th Century. 74 pages. 9x12 inches. Published by G. Schirmer, Inc.
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    Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata (Piano/Viola)  Composed by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Op. 147. For viola solo and piano accompaniment. Format: viola solo single. With standard notation and piano accompaniment. 20th century. C Major. Series: Modern Russian Masterworks. 40 pages. 9x12 inches. Published by G. Schirmer, Inc.
      Trio in E minor, Op. 67 (TAUB)  By Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975). String ensemble with piano: PIANO TRIOS Violin, Cello and Piano. Published by International Music Co.
      Shostakovich - Romance  from the film The Gadfly for Solo Violin and Orchestra. By Dmitri Shostakovich. Arranged by Manashir Iakubov. DSCH. Size 9x12 inches. 16 pages. Published by DSCH.
      Symphony 5, Op.47,D Minor *Not Ours*  By Dmitri Shostakovich. Score. Published by Schott - Eulenberg Miniature Scores.
      Concerto No. 1, Op. 107 (ROSTROPOVICH)  By Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975). Cello and piano. Published by International Music Co.
      New Collected Works of Dmitri Shostakovich - Volume 5  Symphony No. 5, Op. 47. By Dmitri Shostakovich. DSCH. Size 8.75x11.75 inches. 176 pages. Published by DSCH.
      Dmitri Shostakovich - String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110  Score. By Dmitri Shostakovich. DSCH. Size 8.5x11.25 inches. 31 pages. Published by DSCH.

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