Dmitri Shostakovich

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich

Russian 20th-century composer especially famous for his symphonies.

Vital Statistics
St. Petersburg, September 25, 1906
Moscow, August 9, 1975
20th Century
Performed As:
During Lifetime:
The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922. Shostakovich’s music and biography are profoundly affected by Soviet cultural politics.
Biographical Outline
  • Training, 1915-1923: Shostakovich begins to study piano and composition. His musical abilities are immediately remarkable. He enters the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1919. Despite a bout of tuberculosis, he performs his final student piano recital.
  • Graduation exercise, 1925: Shostakovich's First Symphony is completed and performed. Subsequent performances around the globe catapult him to international recognition.
  • In high favor, 1930-34: Shostakovich composes his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. He marries in 1932. Lady Macbeth premieres in both Leningrad and Moscow in 1934, largely with success.
  • Denounced, 1936: Stalin attends a performance of Lady Macbeth. Afterward, an anonymous condemnation of the opera is published in the Soviet newspaper Pravda. It accuses Shostakovich of composing abstract music counter to Soviet ideals of accessible and intelligible art. It warns that the composer will be punished if he does not change his ways. Shostakovich's preeminence is toppled practically overnight. He reportedly contemplates suicide.
  • Rehabilitation, 1937: Pressed to withdraw his difficult, ambiguous, Fourth Symphony, which is unperformable in the year of Stalin's "show" trials, Shostakovich writes the Fifth Symphony. It is accepted as an appropriate artistic response to the accusations of the previous year. Shostakovich joins the faculty of the Leningrad Conservatory. He also begins to write chamber music, particularly his first string quartet.
  • War years, 1941-46: Shostakovich endures the first months of the Siege of Leningrad, lending his talents to the war propaganda effort. He also writes his Seventh Symphony (the "Leningrad"), which is widely interpreted as a depiction of heroic Russian resistance to the German armies. He is evacuated and, in 1943, moves to Moscow and begins teaching at the Conservatory. His dark Eighth Symphony (1943) is banned, and his witty Ninth Symphony (1945) disappoints official expectations, yet in 1946 he is rewarded with an Order of Lenin, his third Stalin Prize, a dacha, and other marks of favor.
  • The "Zhdanov Affair," 1948-1958: Shostakovich, along with leading composers Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khatchaturian, is condemned a second time for his "formalist," abstract music by the Soviet Central Committee, at the instigation of its secretary, Andrei Zhdanov. Shostakovich is forced to apologize publicly, he loses his teaching positions, and his music stops being performed. (The ban is partially reversed the next year, by Stalin's order, and Shostakovich receives more Stalin Prizes.) He turns to composing film music for income and writes several celebratory cantatas to restore himself to official favor. In 1953, Stalin dies, and supporters of Shostakovich's music begin to voice their opinions. In 1958, the composer is finally rehabilitated by official decree.
  • Knuckling under, 1960: Shostakovich succumbs to pressure to join the Communist Party. He uses his official position and preeminence to petition on behalf of artists like poet Joseph Brodsky and to see his "Babi Yar" Symphony (No. 13), based on severely critical poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, performed, despite official opposition. The work is later banned in the Soviet bloc. Cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich smuggles the score out of Russia, and it receives its American premiere from the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Eugene Ormandy, in 1969.
  • Waning health, 1970s: Shostakovich's physical condition deteriorates even as his reputation continues to improve. He suffers from many ailments, including heart disease and stroke, smoking-related cancers, and polio-related illness. In 1975, he dies of throat cancer at age 69.
Fun Facts
  • Bundle of nerves: Shostakovich was always shy, but after his run-ins with official criticism of his work, he became even more fragile and obsessive.
  • Survivor: Shostakovich was one of few artists accused of formalism in the mid-1930s to survive the period. Others, including some friends and patrons, were executed during the Moscow show trials, or were transported to the gulags, or were "disappeared." The composer became adept at speaking Soviet officialese. He also began to divide his work between public compositions that toed the Soviet line, and private compositions, "for the desk drawer," that expressed darker, less-positive emotions.
  • Kicking it around: Shostakovich loved soccer (his favorite squad was Zenit Leningrad). He was a certified referee and he watched matches on TV for relaxation. He also liked card games.
  • Ironist: Shostakovich loved the work of master ironists and satirists like Nikolai Gogol. (He set Gogol's The Nose as an opera.) His own letters and work are riddled with irony.
  • Friend abroad: In the 1960s, Shostakovich befriended Benjamin Britten, and the two held each other's music in high regard. Britten conducted the west-of-the-iron-curtain premiere of Shostakovich's 14th Symphony in 1970, at the Aldeburgh Festival.
  • Whose Shostakovich?: One of the major controversies of 20th-century musical history erupted when a book titled Testimony: the Memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov, was published, in 1979. While some of the composer's family, friends, and associates vouch for the truth of portions of it, scholar Laurel Fay has done detective work that exposes the book as inauthentic and fraudulent. For a summary of the evidence and the controversy, see the excellent, two-part article by David Bratman, for SFCV (Sept. 19, 26, 2006): Shostakovich at His Centenary Part I, Shostakovich at His Centenary Part II
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music

Shostakovich is probably the best-known 20th-century symphonist. His mature orchestral works were influenced by Mahler and have a broad scope, juxtaposing sublime music and parodies. His music is tonal and, because of Soviet decrees, his large-scale public works are sometimes intentionally traditional in form and expression. He is famous for a lush, expansive orchestration that evokes late-19th-century composers like Mahler.

  • Favoring fifteen: Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies and the same number of string quartets. Both genres span wide ranges of his creative life: He completed his First Symphony when he was only 19 years old, whereas his final quartet dates from 1974, less than a year before he died.
  • Tonal irony The string quartets and much of the chamber music, such as the two piano quartets and the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, are still tonal, though more experimental, and expressive of the composer's ironic side and his often bleak outlook on life. Among the most popular are the Eighth and 15th quartets.
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