Personalities | Dmitri Shostakovich | Modern Era | Classical

(D’me’-tre Shus-ta-ko’vich) 1906–75
Russian composer

Shostakovich was the first of his country’s composers to come to attention after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and since Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and (until the 1930s) Prokofiev were all living abroad, his early successes made him the great hope of Soviet music.

He became associated with the Western-influenced modernist movement in the Soviet Union, but with the rise of Stalin his music came under attack.

A successful opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934), and a ballet, The Age of Gold (1930), were driven from the stage and Shostakovich prudently withdrew his harsh Fourth Symphony (1936). He soon wrote a Fifth (1937), and did not object to it being described as ‘a Soviet artist’s creative reply to justified criticism’.

Cyphers and Hidden Messages

In the apparently jubilant finale of his Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich quotes from Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, a passage in which peasants are being violently forced to hail the usurping Tsar. From this point onwards he used quotations and his musical cypher extensively, and these have been widely interpreted as ironic or protesting coded messages, but they are also sometimes private (quotations from his works that had not yet been performed) or perplexing. His Fifteenth Symphony (1971), for example, repeatedly quotes from Gioachino Rossini’s (1792–1868) William Tell overture and from Wagner’s Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde, where they may be a wry comment on the artist as hero. The DSCH cypher (in German musical notation D, E flat, C, B) is often used as an indication of personal feeling. Another aspect of this ‘secret’ language is the use from the mid-1940s of themes of a pronouncedly ‘Jewish’ cast: Shostakovich had many Jewish friends, some ill-treated in the Soviet Union, and is said to have admired the capacity of Jewish folksongs to be both happy and sad.

Music in a Communist State

During World War II, he regained a degree of official approval, notably with the Seventh (‘Leningrad’) Symphony (1939), ostensibly a portrayal of the city’s resistance to privation and German bombardment, but he was one of a number to be publicly disgraced again in 1948, and from then until the death of Stalin in 1953 he wrote little but film music and propaganda cantatas.

The new post-revolutionary regime at first accepted modernism as the natural language of a revolutionary society, but another faction held that art should serve the Revolution and, in order to do so, should appeal to the working classes. This group became dominant, and music not following its precepts was condemned as ‘formalist’: more concerned with form than content, influenced by decadent Western trends. Shostakovich was probably too internationally prominent a figure to be in physical danger on the occasions when he was denounced for formalism, but the Union of Composers was all-powerful. No non-member could have work performed or published, income and many other benefits depended on membership, and the Union, an arm of the state, interpreted and enforced its policies....

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