Composer in Focus – Dmitri Shostakovich

Name: Dmitri Shostakovich
Dates: 1906-1975
Country of Birth: Russia (former Soviet Union)
Musical Era: 20th Century


Truly one of the masters of 20th century classical music, Dmitri Shostakovich was an artist who struggled to be true to himself, but still managed to create a vast body of work that remains some of the most vital yet written. Growing up at the very heart of the former Soviet Union was tough enough, but as an emerging artist, Shostakovich’s own ideals were very much on display and up for public scrutiny. A ‘late starter’ at the age of nine, young Dmitri took to the piano (aided by the fact his mother was a pianist herself), and by the age of thirteen he was beginning studies at the Petrograd Conservatory (which was under the directorship of Glazunov at that time). He flourished as both a pianist and composer, being entered into the very first Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw – and coming through with an honourable mention. The piano was not to be his calling it seemed, but he thrived as a composer and was deeply inspired by the likes of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and, later, Mahler. This of course didn’t stand him great stead with the cultural authorities, fastidiously working under Stalin to maintain a sense of patriotism in all art and music. The fact that Shostakovich’s first Symphony received premiere performances in Berlin and the US only increased the intensity of the gaze on the up and coming young artist. This struggle to please would be a weight around the composer’s neck for much of his career, and included a public lambasting in the press after Stalin’s visit to a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. He more than made up for it with a suitably virile and triumphant Symphony No 5, not to mention the Symphony No 7 (dubbed ‘The Siege of Leningrad’); his Eighth Symphony, however, displeased as the public felt it too defeatist and in stark contrast to the Red Army’s successes on the battlefield at the time.  So Shostakovich pivoted from traitor to hero for years, and it was only after Stalin’s death that he was able to get it all out of his system. He found solace in his chamber writing, and many of these works (there are some fifteen String Quartets, for example) offer very personal insights into the man.

Ultimately, Shostakovich was one of the most original voices to emerge from the 20th century and while he did channel his contemporaries on occasion, his output stands out; not least of all for its variety of style. He can be delightfully grotesque, yet intensely romantic…

Privately, the man was a private soul and a bit of a social enigma. He married three times, and suffered much anguish thanks to the shackles on his self expression. His later years were beset by illness, it seemed to him his body was failing him – indeed he broke both legs and could barely use one of his hands come the end. Suicidal thoughts and a later major heart attack knocked him further, but it was lung cancer that ultimately took Shostakovich. They say he died ‘a broken man’, and his private tortures and real joys can be discovered in his music.

Key works… Symphony No 5, The Gadfly, Symphony No 7, Jazz Suite, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, String Quartet No’s 7, 8 & 9

Did you know?  Shostakovich’s music has been performed in space! Well, sort of… Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin sang music by the composer to Mission Control during a mission.

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Shostakovich in Bristol
Tues 9 May 2017, 7.30pm /
Stephen Johnson & English Piano Trio – ‘5 Pieces (arranged for Piano Trio)’, ;Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op 67′ (The Lantern)
Weds 17 May 2017, 7.30pm /
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra – ‘Festival Overture’ (Colston Hall)