The Music of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, a Centenary Retrospective

With the centenary of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s birth (September 26th, 1906 – August 9th, 1975), 2006 marks a revival year for this greatest of Russian 20th century composers. In commemoration of Shostakovich’s life, events are taking place worldwide, including performances, screenings of films including never before heard film scores, films of classic performances of his works, and new and important documentaries.

One such event is the premiere of the documentary A Journey of Dmitry Shostakovich, directed by Okasana Dvornichenko and Helga Landauer (presented as a component of Discovery Day: The Songs of Shostakovich at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, November 11). The film chronicles Shostakovich during a Soviet ‘propaganda cruise’ to the United States where he is forced to act as a cultural emissary, lauding the political structure of his country, (carefully escorted by several party ‘handlers’). Shostakovich’s relationship to the Russian authorities, and what his personal convictions were in regards to the Communist Party have never been fully appreciated by the West. While this issue should have been put to rest with the 1979 publication of Shostakovich’s memoirs entitled Testimony, the true message of his life’s work has yet to gain universal consensus.

Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, the arts capital of Russia at the time. At the age of 9, he was recognized as a child prodigy pianist and composer. After the success of his first symphony (written as a graduation piece at the Petrograd Conservatory), Shostakovich became world-renowned. But the landmark event of his early career occurred after the premiere and phenomenal success of his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. In 1936, an article was published in Pravda (written by Stalin) that criticized the work as too dissonant, and essentially threatened Shostakovich’s life if he continued this trend. This would change the course of his compositional output, after which (in order to survive) he focused on concert works eventually composing 15 symphonies, several concertos, and 15 string quartets, and numerous other works including film scores, and songs. The polysemic potential of instrumental concert music would become a defining aspect of Shostakovich’s output during the Stalin years in that he could compose music satisfactory to the ideological requirements of Politburo, while in reality expressing the terror, fear and despair of the Russian people. The most famous example of this is the 5th symphony, which Shostakovich described to the Party members who previewed it for suitability as “joyous and optimistic”. It was obvious though to the audience at the work’s premiere that the symphony was about the Great Terror: many audience members wept during the third movement, and the work received a one-hour standing ovation. The 4th and last movement is about an obvious musical representation of the Soviet Juggernaut as there ever was. Similarly, the first movement of the 7th Symphony, a.k.a. the ‘Invasion Theme’, was generally considered at the time to be representative (patriotically) of Hitler’s invasion of Russia, but actually represents the spread of communist ideology through the Russia like a cancer spreading through its host.

As part of an ongoing effort to portray a more liberal attitude towards the arts, Nikita Khrushchev appointed Shostakovich as chairman of the Russian Union of Composers in 1960. In order to accept the position, Shostakovich was obliged to join the Communist Party despite a previous vow never to join. The self-loathing engendered by this decision drove Shostakovich to the point of suicide, and his String Quartet No. 8 was to be his epitaph. Dedicated “To the Memory of the Victims of Fascism and War” (namely Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich) the work is entirely autobiographical, and was composed in three days. Fortunately Shostakovich didn’t kill himself with sleeping pills in 1960, and lived until 1975, dying of cancer likely caused by chain-smoking cardboard tipped Russian cigarettes his whole life.

As Dvornichenko’s new documentary illustrates through the juxtaposition of Soviet propaganda films with Shostakovich-the-dissident’s words and music, his life and work present a defining example of singular artistic vision persevering against life-threatening political forces. We can finally appreciate his music as a canvas upon which has been painted the fear, despair, suffering, and hope of generations. Like all great composers, Shostakovich was a mirror of his time, and ultimately a Shaman who spoke with grace and fluency through the mystical language of sound directly to the hearts and minds of the Russian people, and through time to us, perhaps offering us a warning about the abdication of freedom and the grave consequences of totalitarian power.

This article was originally written for Original article and video are here.