“When a man is in despair, it means that he still believes in something.” – Dmitri Shostakovich
Whatever despair Shostakovich felt in his lifetime – and he almost certainly experienced it in spades – wasn’t for public viewing. Instead, it’s subtly etched into his music, ever-present though often veiled, in a haunting and melancholic body of work. A visible public figure like Shostakovich, after all, simply couldn’t afford to be unhappy while Stalin was watching. Luckily, Shostakovich was a master of disguise; to the outside world he was the model Soviet composer, dutifully writing rousing tunes to accompany national events and propagandist cinema; at home, he was highly decorated by the regime, even joining the Communist Party in 1960. It wasn’t until the publication of his memoirs several years after his death that a picture of a very different man started to emerge; one with a deep cynicism about the Soviet Union and a longstanding contempt for Stalin. Perhaps most shockingly of all, the book revealed that Shostakovich had encoded covert cries of dissent into many of his ostensibly pro-Soviet compositions. There has been much debate about the authenticity of the memoirs, which were compiled and edited by a Russian journalist – Soviet authorities naturally branded the content “a lie from beginning to end” and enlisted Shostakovich’s own son Maxim to discredit it. In any event, the book forever changed the way in which people listen to Shostakovich’s music. When you listen to it for yourself, you’ll probably form your own opinions as to whether he was merely a master going through the motions, or a musical revolutionary.
Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 102, 2nd movement, played by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Shostakovich wrote this masterpiece for Maxim’s 19th birthday. Listen out for his expert use of modulation (changing keys) when he reprises the opening piano theme at 4:24, resolving the tension of the music with a strange serenity.
To live under the intense scrutiny of the Soviet regime was likely extremely difficult for a man of Shostakovich’s temperament. He was by all accounts a fragile and neurotic person – an acquaintance described his face as “a bag of tics and grimaces.” He had several eccentric habits, obsessively synchronizing all the clocks in his apartment, and sending himself mail to check how efficiently the postal service was running. Shostakovich was also quite progressive from an artistic standpoint, a dangerous attitude in Soviet times. He showed his stripes as early as thirteen at the Leningrad Conservatory, exasperating his teachers by showing more interest in imitating Stravinsky and Prokofiev than studying the old Russian masters. It wasn’t until 1936 that his experimental nature landed him in real trouble, when Stalin and the Politburo attended a performance of his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, looking visibly dissatisfied; eyewitnesses recall Shostakovich being “white as a sheet” when he went to take his bow at the end. The upshot was a vicious attack in Pravda entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” – no laughing matter at a time where many artists would mysteriously disappear for less (including a number of Shostakovich’s friends and relatives). Shostakovich suffered a nervous breakdown, and perhaps out of fear cancelled the debut of an upcoming symphony; nonetheless he vowed “If they cut off both hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth.”
Waltz No. 2 from Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra
And here’s a great video showing the joy that music can bring to people:
During the siege of Leningrad in 1941, Shostakovich found his chance for artistic redemption. It was a desperate time, with thousands perishing every day from starvation, disease and bombardment. Shostakovich worked as part of the night’s watch (never venturing north of the Wall but nonetheless acquitting himself with honour) diffusing bombs and putting out fires. In his rare moments of tranquility, he would compose music. There’s an old Russian saying that “When guns speak, the muses keep silent,” but Shostakovich defied it by writing his seventh symphony during this time, a monumental work more commonly known as the Leningrad Symphony. It’s a work of both historical as well as musical significance; the Soviet authorities went to great lengths to organize a performance of the symphony, seeing it as crucial to boosting the ailing morale of the people. A radio archive contains a fragment of an executive order given at that time: “By any means, get a score of the Seventh from Moscow. Transport it to Leningrad as soon as possible.” On June 2nd, 1942, a pilot flew a risky mission over Nazi lines to bring the manuscript of the symphony to the besieged city, where it was given to the conductor of the last remaining ensemble in town. There was a problem though: half his musicians were dead, the rest suffering from starvation, dystrophy and exhaustion. A list of living musicians in Leningrad was compiled and ordered to report for duty; they were provided extra rations to give them the strength to hold their instruments (a task they couldn’t manage for more than ten minutes at the first rehearsal), while a team of copyists worked tirelessly to prepare the parts for the musicians from the original score. When the performance finally took place on August 9th, 1942, German artillery positions were bombarded in advance to ensure the concert was uninterrupted. The concert hall was overflowing for the first time since the siege began, and the music broadcast live to millions of people; news of the performance was heard all around the world with a clear message: Hitler’s attack on Leningrad had failed. A playwright that attended the concert recalled “People who no longer knew how to shed tears of sorrow and misery now cried from sheer joy.”
The finale to his “Leningrad” Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60, played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein
In December 1953, following the death of Stalin earlier that year, Shostakovich wrote his tenth symphony, another epic work that embodies his trademark brand of musical satire. In his memoirs he is quoted as saying: “I did depict Stalin in my next symphony, the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that’s the basis.” Have a listen to an excerpt from this portrait in one of the most bizarre yet strangely compelling musical mashups I’ve ever seen: Beyoncé dancing to the 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93. To borrow from one YouTube commenter: “Yo, Dmitri, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”
One of the best things for me personally about writing this blog has been my own discovery process as I research each entry, often learning completely new things about composers I wasn’t that familiar with. Despite my longstanding adoration of Russian classical music, I’d somehow never taken the time to listen properly to Shostakovich until now, which I’ve come to realize was a terrible oversight! Shostakovich’s music has it all: originality, variety, personality, sass, sarcasm, and above all beauty. If you haven’t already been converted into a fan like me, check out some more of his stunning works below.
Prelude from Three Violin Duets, played by Janine Jensen and Julian Rachlin. There’s a fair bit of background noise in this video but I thought there was something captivating about it all the same.
Romance from The Gadfly, Op. 97a, played by Nicola Benedetti at the 2012 Proms
The outrageously cool Foxtrot from Jazz Suite No. 1, Op. 38, played by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra
Three generations of musicians: Shostakovich’s son Maxim conducts the 2nd movement of Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 35, performed by his own son Dmitri Shostakovich Jr. and accompanied by I Musici de Montreal
Flame of Eternal Glory, Op. 111b, Shostakovich’s entry into a competition to write a new national anthem for the Soviet Union, played by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Theodore Kuchar