Article abstract: Shostakovich was a first-rank composer in the Soviet Union for a full five decades. He adroitly balanced the insistent requirements of totalitarian political dictatorship over artistic culture with his own irrepressible inspiration for superb creativity to win worldwide acclaim.
Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich grew up in a musical family, adopting a musical vocation quite naturally. His mother, a product of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, was a piano teacher. Amateur musical evenings in the family home were a regular part of Shostakovich’s childhood. At the age of fourteen, Shostakovich himself entered the conservatory, where he studied piano and composition. Already he had displayed a talent for composition with pieces, as their titles suggest (Soldier and In Memory of the Heroes Who Fell in the October Revolution), that manifested another of his natural inclinations, namely the reflection of contemporary political conditions in his creative productions.
Shostakovich acquired international fame early with his symphony (1925), written as his graduation composition when he was only nineteen. After Bruno Walter introduced it in Berlin in 1927, performance of the symphony soon spread around the world and contributed to a positive view of artistic creativity in Soviet music during the New Economic Policy (1921-1928). The government showed its recognition of Shostakovich’s potential value to it by subsidizing a European tour in 1927, during which he received an award in the International Chopin Competition as a pianist. Presently he made the decision to concentrate his talents upon composition at the expense of piano performance.
The 1920’s in the Soviet Union was a period of experimentation in all aspects of human social existence. Shostakovich celebrated the new society in his compositions. His second (1927) and third (1929) symphonies carried explicitly political titles, October and May Day, respectively, and expressed the optimistic triumphalism of the revolutionary milieu with bold instrumental and grandiose choral movements. Shostakovich ventured into the arena of social criticism with modernist ballets—The Golden Age (1928), The Bolt (1930), and The Limpid Stream (1935)—and operas—The Nose (1928) and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1932)—that satirized bourgeois values, some of which he found surviving in Soviet Russia.
Of his ballets and operas, only Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk earned sustained critical praise, but it was also the work that brought him into collision with the Stalinist regime that put an end to the opportunity for artistic experimentation that the 1920’s had afforded. After the opera enjoyed numerous successful performances for two years in both the Soviet Union and abroad, Joseph Stalin attended a performance in January, 1936. The Communist Party daily Pravda published a vicious attack upon it under the rubric “chaos instead of music.” The work was condemned as discordant, incomprehensible, and pornographic, whose true meaning was revealed by the approval it won among capitalist enemies. The shock of the Pravda attack changed Shostakovich’s behavior, and his composing became cautious. He withdrew his fourth symphony (1936) from rehearsal, and it waited until the cultural thaw of 1961 for its premiere. With his fifth symphony (1937), Shostakovich adopted a new, more straightforward and traditional compositional style. The success of the symphony established his position as the preeminent Soviet composer.
After the German invasion in 1941, Shostakovich wrote two patriotic symphonies (seventh, 1942, and eighth, 1943) in which the world heard the inspirational celebration of the heroism and courage of the Soviet people. Shostakovich’s world fame reached its greatest height. Western appreciation of Shostakovich waned after the war. One reason for the fading of his luster was the recognition that the wartime symphonies were not great compositions by modern aesthetic standards. Another reason was the imposition of stifling artistic restrictions in the Soviet Union by Stalin’s cultural dictator, Andrei Zhdanov.
In January, 1948, Zhdanov staged an event that actually amounted to a trial of Shostakovich, at which he was accused, in effect, of possessing musical talent that was appreciated in the rest of the world. Zhdanov assembled a conference of composers at which, in the guise of an exchange of opinions about Soviet music, he set the example for a parade of speakers who attacked Shostakovich for his failure to “reform” in the years since 1936. Other composers also...
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