Dmitri Shostakovich: A Musical Creative Genius

Dmitri Shostakovich: A Musical Creative Genius
"In Shostakovich we have the paradigm of a new, essentially political form of complex inward adjustments, one which requires a new kind of symphony." (Norris 177) Although a lifelong communist and an intense Russian patriot (he applied for and was granted membership into the Communist party in 1960), Dmitri Shostakovich composed under constant fear of public condemnation, often for what he perceived as the most contradictory reasons. He strongly believed in a profound bond between the composer and his society which enabled him to work, survive, and develop, but also which fostered an air of confusion when he felt he was wrongly criticized. In 1968, he was quoted as saying, "Soviet music is a weapon in the ideological battle. Artists cannot stand as indifferent observers in this struggle."
He believed that composers could not retreat into private, creative worlds; rather, they must deal with the socio-political problems of the day, however bitter the experience. He felt that 'good' music lifts and heartens the people for work; it might be tragic, but it must be strong. This quotation reinforces his interdependence with the Soviet state. He realized that his works were entirely public, and as such, should be written with not only the audience in mind, but also with the thoughts of how a strict government might react.

As a youth, Shostakovich believed that he was to be the successor to Beethoven's throne as the compositional genuis. It is safe to assume that no composer until Shostakovich had been so central to the history of his time, or had so consistently sought to symphonically express the sufferings and aspirations of his contemporaries as had Beethoven. Dmitri Shostakovich, composer of fifteen symphonies, developed a musical language all of his own, one that could communicate emotions of anger, sadness, joy, and cynicism (he never underestimated his audience's ability to uncover the meanings of his compositions). Shostakovich, a musical contemporary of Stravinsky who decided to remain in Russia, is a creative genius that was influenced tremendously by his native land, the nation where he produced his influential symphonies. Although he did not create a completely new style, he did create a new language within the existing late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century musical idiom. His creativity was developed in direct response to the political climate in which he lived, as a means to express himself within the acceptable standards of his homeland.

His Development and Works

Shostakovich was born to his parents Dmitri Boleslavovich and Sofia on 25 September 1906 in the city formerly known as St. Petersburg, now known as Leningrad. Although his parents did not push formal music training on young Dmitri, he began studying the piano from his mother at the age of ten. World War I, raging at this historic time, was 'kind' to the Shostakovich household, as the elder Dmitri received numerous promotions, increasing the family income. In 1918, at the age of of twelve, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music. While there, Alexander Glazunov, Shostakovich's first tutor, sent him to study from Maximilian Steinberg, the great master of the piano. Shostakovich's father died in the same year that young Dmitri decided to devote his life to his musical vocation, 1922. By 1924, his family was very poor; Dmitri had TB and bronchitis, his mother had malaria, and for the first time, the Shostakovich household came to know the poverty and suffering common to the Russian people. In order to obtain income, he procured a job at a movie theatre accompanying silent movies, thus exposing him to the cinema at an early age.

Early in 1926, at the age of twenty, Shostakovich completed his First Symphony as a graduation piece from the Conservatory. At its Leningrad premiÉre in May, the audience approved so much that the orchestra encored the Scherzo before the audience erupted into wild applause, calling Shostakovich back for many curtain calls. At this point, the infant nation searching for an artistic representative, he was praised as the up-and-coming Russian, Soviet composer.

The Soviet government was quick to notice its first truly talented, totally Soviet artist, and was certain to make use of him. (Blokker 21) He began composing during the chaos of postwar Europe, the political and intellectual atmosphere of the twenties being unprecedented. Shostakovich realized that, although he enjoyed both very much, he would have to choose between composing and concertizing on the piano. Unlike Rachmaninoff, he did not believe he could split his time and expect to produce worthy music in either aspect. His Second Symphony was commissioned as a celebratory hymn for the Tenth Anniversary of the Revolution festivities. Emulating his idol Beethoven, Shostakovich tagged on a majestic choral ending in the style of the former's Ninth Symphony. This work, too, was received with exuberant praise from the Soviet establishment.

In 1934, Shostakovich announced a grand scheme: he was to compose a tetralogy of operas in praise of Russian womanhood. The first installment, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was immediately hailed as a huge success both at home and abroad (including in America), being referred to as both charming and refreshing. The international acclaim that he enjoyed, however, was severely dashed when, in 1936, two years after the opera's premiÉre, Pravda, the official Party newspaper published an unsigned letter referring to it as confusion, not music. The letter, attributed to Stalin himself, used such harsh descriptions as 'musical chaos', 'cacophony', 'decadent', and 'pornophony', even going so far to as criticize Shostakovich for "his lack of concern for national songs, and thus national heritage and purpose." As the government saw things, the duty of the artist was rather simple: "build confidence and solidarity and love for the fatherland, right or wrong. Be heroic." (26)

This was an intense period of pressure for young Shostakovich; he wanted to satisfy public demands and create lasting beauty. Shostakovich had to deal with a difficult dilemma: what to do when the government that you believe in attacks you for your progress? While planning his responsorial Fifth Symphony, he took up teaching duties at the Conservatory. The Fifth, acclaimed by the Soviet authorities, reestablished Shostakovich as the leading Soviet composer. It appeased the demands of officialdom and was a key contribution to this genre's revival in the twentieth century without any type of compromise of aesthetic principle. In 1939, Shostakovich was both confirmed as professor at the Conservatory and elected to the Leningrad city soviet (city council). Two years later, despite the non-aggression pact, Nazi Germany invaded Russia, Shostakovich's home Leningrad taken under siege. Unlike many of his countryfolk, he had no illusions that the Nazis were to be potential liberators. He even tried to join the Red Army and Civil Guard, but his poor eyesight failed him, relegating him to a position as fireman in the local Civil Defence brigade. Shostakovich would not leave when his city was being evacuated, rather writing patriotic songs before turning to his Seventh Symphony, the "Leningrad" Symphony. Like, for example, Mozart and Mendelssohn, Shostakovich did the bulk of composing in his head before actually sitting down to write it out. This explains the relative swiftness with which Shostakovich composed this symphony. The Russian poetess Verna Inber had this to say of Shostakovich during World War II:

I am moved by the thought that while the bombs rain down on this be- sieged city Shostakovich is writing a symphony...It shines and warms my heart. (MacDonald 152)

In 1948, after a period of relative artistic independence, he was accused of writing confused music, occupied by private whims, and for corrupting the minds of his students. Shostakovich again felt attacked for what he thought best served both his patron and his art. 'Retiring' to film scores, the period from 1948 to 1953 was one of caution for the politically battered composer. After the Holocaust of WWII, he headed a delegation to the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in 1949 in New York City, where he obediantly condemned Western tendencies in politics and music.. He furthered his humanitarian interests by attending World Peace Congresses in Warsaw (1950) and in Vienna (1952). Upon Stalin's death in 1953, Shostakovich's deeply introspective Tenth Symphony appeared to a thunderous reception at its premire. With tension easing at home, he led the first Russian cultural exchange group to America. Commemorating the Holocaust, Shostakovich then composed his Eighth String Quartet, giving it the subtitle "In Memory of the Nazi and War Victims".

In 1961, Shostakovich began his Thirteenth Symphony, a daring song cycle of a symphony with the text from poems of Yevtushenko. In it, the resistance to oppression is made identical to the struggle against anti-semitism. Even before its premiÉre, the cultural world buzzed with anticipation, realizing its content was saturated with criticism and contempt. Only its reception could rival this anticipation; the audience was rightfully moved to lengths by its mammoth power. The Eleventh through Thirteenth Symphonies are often viewed as a tryptich of revolution, but the Thirteenth stands way apart due to its vast superiority. At his sixtieth birthday, a special concert was given where he was awarded the highest honor in the USSR, becoming the first musician to be honored as "Hero of Socialist Labor". His Fourteenth Symphony (1967) is the closest to a definitive demonstration of his musical and philosophical language. Calling for chamber orchestra, enlarged percussion, and two solo voices, the eleven poems are set to music in such a manner rivaling his most profound and significant works. This was immediately followed by a song-cycle built on pro-Lenin, pro-Revolutionary poetry to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lenin's birth. On 9 August 1975, in the midst of composing his Sixteenth Symphony, Dmitri Shostakovich died after suffering a second heart attack.

The Soviet State

Following the Revolution, Russia, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Lenin, was in a state of relative political chaos. The so-called 'bloodless democratic' revolution was turning into a bloodpath. Unrestrained anarchy ruled in many cities as a Civil War broke out, the government responding with an attempt to exterminate the bourgeoisie. In this midst of this political environment, Shostakovich 'composed' his first pieces, at the ripe old age of eleven. Although not actually notated, the Ode to Liberty and Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution, both for solo piano, impressed his initial audiences immensely. Although the primary concern of the Bolshevik government was trying to resist peasant uprisings, it was able to budget an unproportionate amount of money to universities for the development of the arts, aiding Shostakovich in his early Conservatory training.

Under the leadership of the tyrant Stalin in the twenties, the Soviet system assumed the introverted ad monolithic features that have since been commonly attributed to it. Stalin and the Soviet Central Committee cracked down on the Western influence of the arts, deeming it disruptive and splintering, in favor of an ideal of Soviet Realism. A medium of music whose message of optimism that should convey a positive attitude, it not only discouraged the use of tragedy, it forbade it. The Western concept of musical experimentation was also forbidden in the new untolerant Soviet state.

Stalin had his own personal opinions on how Soviet music, especially the symphony, should sound. It must created as hopeful and hopeful music built on Russian themes and folk heritage that would appeal to the masses. Traits that were especially admired by Stalin include: strength, loudness, heroicness, tunefulness, and triumphance. In actuality, though, "socialist realism was really nothing more than what was useful to Stalin at any given moment." (MacDonald 115)

Conflict between artists and the state was inevitable. Shostakovich refused to "write down" to the level of the majority; instead, he strove to bring that level higher. On 28 January 1936, an anonymous letter attributed to Stalin appeared in Pravda accusing Shostakovich of writing "muddle instead of music" was seen as being tantamount to a death sentence. He was basically told that , unless he changed his apparent Formalist ways, "things could end very badly." These attacks on Shostakovich, which had him worried of pending exile or even a death sentence, were immediately followed by a wave of similar assaults on architecture, painting, drama, literature, and the cinema: the Terror had begun. Wanting to freeze independent thought in order to maintain his power (as well as creating a huge slave labor force to work the Siberian tundra), Stalin developed the Terror as a social experiment to adapt humans into robots programmed to love only the state; at the apex of the Terror (1935-38), 1/2 million people had already been exterminated while another seven million were working in labor camps. Shostakovich, in part due to his 'decadent' Western influence and international popularity, was especially vulnerable to these series of purges. By the end of the Terror in 1938, Stalin allowed the artists more freedom in an attempt to improve the public image of the Soviet state. The atmosphere, though, never really relaxed until Stalin died and Kruschev became the new premiÉr. At least to outsiders, the impression was that artists must be given a free, independent voice if they are to give the real truth.

The Creative Output of Shostakovich:

Throughout his entire career, Shostakovich was continually influenced by the Soviet government. He often composed works for specific celebrations and concerts (such as the tone poem October), operas with nationalistic imagery (Lady MacBeth of Metsnk), string quartets to the survivors of the Holocaust, and so on. In his symphonies, however, Shostakovich displayed the true effect of Soviet pressures on his compositional output. While almost every piece that he penned showed either some sort of political influence or uttered a political statement, I will focus on three of the works where this influence is most evident: the 5th and 7th Symphonies. As this is not a paper of music scholarship, I will refrain from a detailed analysis of the following pieces.

The Fifth Symphony:

Composed in 1937 and premiered in Leningrad on 21 November, the Fifth Symphony not only appeased the government, but it also brought Shostakovich lasting fame. Written as his apology and response to the scathing Pravda criticism, this was Shostakovich's attempt to return himself into the good graces of the national government. It seems, though, that he deliberately disobeyed all of the 'guidelines' set forth by Soviet Realism: he relied on sonata form when formalism was disallowed; he wrote an intense tragedy when only uplifting, positive music was permitted; he included no references to folk music or nationalistic ideas despite direct orders to do so. He appears to be offering his critics the answer they wanted to hear while silently laughing at them. Acclaimed by the authorities, the Fifth reestablished Shostakovich as the leading Soviet composer.

The first movement expresses harsh conflict through a tenuous string figure, a two-mote Stalin motive. A bold stroke of genius, this two-note motive was a very daring attack on Stalin, indeed. The second movement, a Scherzo in trio style, is characterized with bitter satire, focusing again on the identifying theme. The third movement, a deeply emotional largo, was written as a study of string sonorities, dividing the strings into three violins, two violas, and two cellos. The audience, fully capable of relating to this movement, cried during the largo. Many felt terrified and alone as portions of families were either arrested or slaughtered during the Terror. The intensity of this personally tragic work spoke for the Russian people in their hour of darkness and desperation. The final movement, a dynamic allegretto, is opened with a massive wall of sound which whirls the music into a frenzy as the energies and tension pent up earlier in the symphony are finally released. While the symphony ends with dignity and solemnity, the Finale is anything but exultant, its rejoicing forced, as if created under a threat.

Four days prior to the Moscow premier, a "subtitle was 'suggested' to Shostakovich by an 'unknown jounalist' and accepted by the composer 'with gratitude.'" (MacDonald 133) The apparently yielding subtitle, "A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Crtiticism," allowed the state to believe that they were the critics he heeded. Paraded for several years as one of the greatest triumphs of Soviet Realism, believing that he was redeemed through the grace of the Communist party, the introspection was more clearly seen to be Shostakovichian realism, in part a musical memorial to the Russians who died or disappeared during the Terror. The Fifth Symphony, an outspoken attack on Stalinist tyranny and the sinister inanities of Soviet Realism, proved Shostakovich to be a courageous composer and a creative genius.

The Seventh Symphony

Russian in mood and nationalistic in themes, the "Leningrad Symphony became a symbol of the war effort, acquiring propaganda value in the most exalted sense of the word." (Blokker 85) Often writing by candlelight, Shostakovich completed the first three movements in his besieged home city of Leningrad while shells fell outside of his bomb shelter. Written as a tribute to his city and to its future victory, Shostakovich became a national hero, the work ingrained in the hearts of the Russian people ever since the quasi-religious premiere. The symphony, complete with its phoenix symbolism, also became a symbol of hope in America, its sixty two performances in its debut year establishing Shostakovich as the leading 'modern' composer.

The most famous part of this symphony is the first movement, complete with the Ravellian development of the massive march. As the orchestral colors thicken during the repetitions of the march theme, the ostinato side drum crescendos, yielding the effect of the German army approaching mercilessly. Like the entire symphony, though, the march development is actually two distinct ideas at once. Shostakovich also wanted this march to represent the Red Army at the violent climax of the Terror; Shostakovich used the synphony symphony to show how the Russian peasant lives were affected by Stalin and by the German Army, saying, "Nowadays people like to treat the prewar period as an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that is clear, but so is Stalin...There were millions of (Russians killed) in our country before the war with Hitler began." (MacDonald 155)

Finished on 27 December 1941 and inscribed "To the City of Leningrad," this seventy minute symphony, Shostakovich's longest, became the most talked about composition in the world over the next two years. American conductors viciously vied for the first wired manuscript which was given its national premiere over NBC. From this symphony, Shostakovich was able to utilize the Leningraders to give the world an example of strength and courage, even beauty, in the ugliest of circumstances.

Due to its intrinsic musical value, the Seventh Symphony became a major weapon of propaganda for the socialist state. During the Moscow premiere, when a soldier actually mounted the stage, beseeching the audience to evacuate immediately due to a pending air-raid, nobody moved and, risking their lives for the sake of art, the symphony was continued. Stalin also decided that a performance in Leningrad was imperative. Since most of the orchestra members were on the front line, soldiers were pulled off the battlefront and a make-shift orchestra was assembled for the emotionally-charged performance. In the end, though, Shostakovich got the last laugh, as this symphony was more than an attack on Hitler and the Nazis, as he himself admitted, "it's about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off." (MacDonald 155)


"In his hands, even the symphony became overtly representational and exhortatory in nature." (Stradling 191) Shostakovich completely changed the way that the symphony was looked upon in the twentieth century. He not only created lasting beauty through his music, but he also made profound statements that have still retained much of their significance today. The type of dissention that Shostakovich displayed required a great deal of courage; he blatantly and publicly disregarded Stalin's explicit orders.

Much to the constant irritation of the Soviet critics, reform was never at any point in his compositional career to be definitive. Although he would usually appease the government with his next composition, he would rebound back to his old ways of writing: politically criticizing his government. Shostakovich's music is always original and innovative, never abstract. He did, however, run into difficulty when he tried to balance the demands of socialist realism with the clear-cut emotional path of his symphonic language. Much of Shostakovich's music can be seen as a complex drama of a style in search of an acceptable language.

Shostakovich's musical development was unquestionably influenced by the frequent bloodletting in his homeland. Whether it was Hitler and the Nazis or Stalin and the Red Army, Shostakovich witnessed first-hand mass destruction and extermination. It is impossible to conceive a manner in which he could have composed without the spiritual experiences he had had. He criticized the country he loved; the country repeatedly criticized its most loved composer. He believed in his country, being a devout nationalist at heart. The symphonies, which in some manner relate to his inner struggle to communicate the feelings of his country and to help in the guidance of the infant nation, are clearly some of the greatest pieces ever penned. "Shostakovich's greatness and his fortunes as a Soviet citizen-composer are inseparably bound together." (Norris 186)

While Shostakovich's creativity flourished because of his envirinment, it was also limited; this, then, is his Faustian Bargain. With the constant attacks on his creativity, he had to strike a medium where he could compose in his own voice, but yet remain unpersecuted. On the other hand, though, his voice that would have developed in the un-Soviet environment might not have been as powerful; possibly his Faustian Bargain is actually the cause of his creative genius. His lack of physical prowess is not a Faustian Bargain, though; he never had to voluntarily give up anything that was physically-related in order to compose his music. In fact, the opposite was true: he gave up fighting in the WWII army to compose the Leningrad Symphony.

His marginality results from the way that he is viewed by Westerners. The fact that he composed in a Communist society places him in very small company. Even within the Soviet state, he was still on the fringe. All individuals that were categorized as artists, etc. were viewed as being a different type of Soviet citizen. Ultimately, though, the creative genius of Shostakovich is quite directly related to his native land. The political environment that he experienced, and then reacted to and against, had a very profound effect on his life. In all actuality, his creative genius may not have emerged if it had not been for this strong influence.

Dmitri Shostakovich: A Musical Creative Genius 9.1 of 10 on the basis of 1447 Review.