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Dmitry Shostakovich,

a Soviet composer who was born in St Petersburg Sept. 25 1906. He was born at a crucial time in Russian history when revolutionary fervor and dissatisfaction with the tsar and government had led to the bloody January uprising of 1905, and Shostakovich was just 11 when the decisive October Revolution occurred in 1917. his career as a musician ran parallel with the history of the new Soviet state. Nevertheless he was often at odds with official artistic doctrines and although he appeared at times to ben with the fluctuating Soviet attitudes to music he maintained to the last an integrity and individuality which have marked him as the most important composer in the Soviet Union.

The Early Years. At first Shostakovich was destined to become a pianist. He studied piano at home with his mother and then at the Petrograd Conservatory with Leonid Nikolayev. He also studied composition with Maximilian Shteynberg and formed a close association with the conservatory's principal, Glazunov, whose influence is discernible in the crisp scoring of Shostakovich's First Symphony (1925). But Shostakovich swiftly outgrew the conservatory teaching and Shteynberg was later to express incomprehension of some of his dissonant early piano works, notably the First Piano Sonata (1926) and the Aphorisms (1927). At this time Shostakovich had allied himself with the forward looking principles of the Association for Contemporary Music (ASM) which actively promoted the study and performance of contemporary Western music by such composers as Schoenberg, Hindemith, and Berg. The result of this phase are seen not only in Shostakovich's astringent piano works but also in the incidental music which he wrote for Vladimir Mayakovsky's play Klop (The Bedbug, 1929), the ballets Bolt (The Bolt 1930-31) and Zolotoy vek (The Age of Gold 1929-32), and the music for the silent film Novyy Vavilon (New Babylon (1929) this last - rejected by most cinema orchestras as being too difficult – revealed an alertness to dramatic situation and characterization which manifested itself in later film scores and in his two completed operas Nos (The Nose 1930) and Ledi Makbet Mtsenskovo Uyezda (The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District 1934)
The Nose is a vivid sign of its times reflecting Russia's satirical mood of the 1920's and also emphasizing in its extremely complex harmonies and rhythms the modernism of Shostakovich's style of the moment. It also reveals Shostakovich's keen sense of theater and a highly original treatment of the voice. As his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky remarked, Shostakovich was perhaps the first among Russian composers to make his heroes speak not in conventional arias and cantilenas but in living language, setting everyday speech to music. Such a notion of musical realism of vocal lines closely moulded to the inflection and rhythms of spoken Russian had been a feature of much Russian vocal writing, particularly in Musorgsky's music, since it's advocacy by Darmomyzhsky in his opera The Stone Guest. In The Nose Shostakovich applied a similar technique but injected into it a new vitality producing potent virile vocal lines which the composer Sergey Slonimsky has aptly described as “brilliantly eccentric”.
But brilliant eccentricity was soon to fall into disfavor as the Soviet authorities with Stalin in power sought ton invest the arts with a purpose directed towards the welfare of the state, so the atmosphere of musical experimentation which had been allowed to thrive in the 1920's was firmly dispelled. At the time of the 1932 decree bringing all musical activity under state control Shostakovich was nearing completion of his four-act opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the first part of a trilogy of operas dealing with Russian womanhood. After its Leningrad premiere in 1934 the opera was hailed as a model of the new concept of socialist realism, but only two years later – just after Stalin himself had seen the opera – it was condemned in the notorious Pravada editorial as “chaos instead of music” for its explicitness and dissonance. It was dropped from the repertory and was never seen again in Russia until its revival as Katerina Izmaylova in 1962.

Years of Maturity. The condemnation of Lady Macbeth had far reaching consequences not only for Soviet opera but for Soviet music in general. At the time Shostakovich was working on his Fourth Sympohny (1935-36) and although its complexity was certainly not so pronounced as the polytonality, polyrhythm and frenetic activity of the Second Symphony (1927) Shostakovich realized that it was stylistically a companion piece to Lady Macbeth in its bold gestures, grim power, lavish orchestral resources, and its huge unorhadox symphonic structure. In the prevailing cultural climate it was the wrong work at the wrong time. He withdrew it and it was not performed until 1961. Instead eh produced his Fifth Symphony (1937) which is composed in a clearer more direct manner than the Fourth Symphony, its euphony and sense of grandeur and nobility conformed more closely to the ideals of socialist realism. But this is not to suggest that Shostakovich's artistic principles were compromised however the path of ultra modernism suggested by his music of the late 1920's had come to an end. The Fifth Symphony revealed a maturing personality which had already been evident in such works as the First Piano Concerto (1933), the Cello Sonatas (1934), the first String Quartet (1938) and his Piano Quintet (1940). He also confirmed his talent as a cinema composer in a number of film scores and re-scored Musorgsky's Boris Godunov (1939-40).
At the heart of this period of Shostakovich's career lies the music he wrote during the Second World War. The Soviet Union entered the war in 1941 which was the year Leningrad was surrounded by German forces. The siege was to last for two and a half years, a period of incredible deprivation and suffering but also one in which the people displayed a remarkable degree of heroism. Shostakovich captured the mood of these years in his Seventh Symphony (1941) he described it as 'a symphony about our epoch, about our people, about our sacred war, about our victory', and he dedicated it to the city of Leningrad. It is a demonstrative work that graphically depicts human life and human tragedy, the resilience of the Soviet people and in its finale their strength and ability to survive. The mood of the Seventh contrasts sharply with that of the Eighth Symphony (1943) which was written at the height of the war and was composed in a bitter, pessimistic terms, same as his Piano Trio (1944) written in memory of Ivan Sollertinsky. Only in his projected opera Igroki (The Gamblers 1941) could Shostakovich find a lighter touch, though he abandoned it at the end of scene eight. The Gamblers was performed in public until 1978.
To mark the end of the war Shostakovich wrote his Ninth Symphony (1945) dominated as the composer said by 'a transparent, clear mood'. The jauntiness and air of trouble free serenity dashed official expectations of a defiant heroic celebration of victory, a fact which clearly contributed to the criticism the symphony attracted during the cultural purges carried out in 1948 by Stalin's right hand man Andrey Zhdanov. Along with every other composer of note Shostakovich was condemned for alleged formalism in his music and was urged forcefully to find his way back to the path of socialist realism.

The Late Years. As in the crisis of 1936 Shostakovich once again had to take stock in the wake of Zhdanov's criticisms. He withheld a few potentially controversiol workes which were either completed or planned: The First Violin Concerto (1947-48), the song cycle Iz Evreyskoy Narodnoy Poezii (From Jewish Folk Poetry 1048), and the Fourth String Quartet (1949). Instead he offered to the public a few more film scores and such choral works as the oratorio Pesn' o Lesakh (Song of the Forests 1949), the Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets (1951), and the cantata Nad Rodinoy Nashey Solntse Siyayet (The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland 1952).
With the death of Stalin in 1953 the cultural climate thawed to the extent that Shostakovich's works of the late 1940's could be given their delayed premieres. He also began work on his Tenth Symphony (1953) in which the undercurrents of melancholy and dark soul searching flowing beneath much of his earlier music came powerfully to the surface. The Tenth Symphony is a deeply personal work and as such was the subject of a vigorous three day debate at the Moscow branch of the Union of Soviet Composers. Some commentators felt that the symphony was 'non realistic' and attacked its pessimism, others stressed that the Soviet composer ought now to be guided by his own artistic instincts, particularly since the process of de-Stalinization was now allowing for 'independence, courage, experimentation' in music. From this time on Shostakovich's own music became gradually more inward looking, more concerned to express openly those concerns which he had so far kept largely suppressed. To a greater extent he withdrew into the intimate medium of the chamber ensemble and composed seven of his 15 quartets in his last decade or so and wrote the Violin Sonata (1957) in his very last year. He also composed a number of song cycles which reflect the preoccupations with irony terror and death which colored his later life. Satiry (Satires 1960), Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok (1967), Six Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva (1973), and the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1974). His last symphonies reveal comparable traits and in the Thirteenth Sympohny (1962) for bass solo, male chorus, and orchestra, he painted a savage and terrifying picture of Stalinist oppression. The Fourteenth Symphony which was scored for soprano and bass soloists with a small orchestra of strings and percussion had a deep introspection of his last years is achingly asserted in music of sinister drama, lyricism, and martial brutality combining to create a work of harrowing intensity.

Much has been written about Shostakovich's position in the Soviet political scheme and about the wide gap which separates his apparently public works from his more personal ones like the late symphonies and quartets. He was indeed capable of the profound and the ordinary and on the surface it may seem odd that in a single year (1953) he could write the Tenth Symphony together with an entirely untroubled Ballet Suite and a sprightly Concertino for two pianos and that in another year (1957) he could conceive the massive Eleventh Symphony and the crisp and lyrical Second Piano Concerto. Similarly at the very time he was working on the massive Fourth Symphony (1934-35) he was able to turn his mind to the lightweight opera The Tale of the Priest and his Workman Balda 1933-36. This diversity should not be attributed to political pressure but more to multi-faceted personality which was able to create music of unusually high artistic merit fro all manner of audiences. True, he had little time for the musical bureaucracy which sought to restrain compositional flair through blanket decrees. His relationship with officials within the Union of Soviet Composers is vividly described in Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich, a book which voices the sentiments which are so strongly expressed in Shostakovich's music and more than any amount of writing it is the music which should occupy our time for as Shostakovich said “by studying my music you will find the whole truth about me as a man and an artist”.



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