Skip to main content

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one of the most important composers of the 20th century. His works reflect the difficult living conditions in the former Soviet Union in sometimes depressing ways.

Born on September 25, 1906 in St. Petersburg, Shostakovich came into contact with Russian and German music as a child. At the age of thirteen he began his studies (piano and composition) at the Petrograd Conservatory, which he concluded spectacularly in 1925: his diploma thesis, the first symphony, immediately became an international success. After completing his studies, Shostakovich – out of doubt as to his vocation – initially had to somehow fend for himself as a pianist in cinema theaters. In 1928 he completed his first opera, "The Nose", whose grotesques reflect the diverse currents in post-revolutionary Russia.

With his second opera in 1934, "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" Shostakovich achieved another success. The work was performed over a hundred times within two years - until it incurred Stalin's displeasure in 1936: after a visit by the dictator, the opera was severely condemned in a "Pravda" article entitled "Chaos instead of music". Shostakovich, who was accused of "formalism" and "alienation from the people", lived from then on in constant fear of falling victim to the "Great Purge" by Stalin. Although he was successfully rehabilitated because of his fifth symphony in 1937 – he also received the first of several "Stalin Prizes" from 1941 – Shostakovich was accompanied by fear of death throughout his life.

Dmitri Shostakovich, photograph from 1960, when the composer visited Dresden

Dmitri Shostakovich, photograph from 1960, when the composer visited Dresdenhielt.

Shostakovich bust in Gohrisch

During the Second World War, Shostakovich composed his "Leningrad Symphony" (No. 7), which became a symbol of the resistance against fascism worldwide. With this Symphony he became one of the most popular composers of the present day.

In 1948, however, he was ostracized a second time by Soviet cultural ideology: the allegations of 1936 were repeated and now also included composers such as Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian. Shostakovich chose the path of internal emigration: on trips abroad, to which he was officially forced to represent Soviet music, he gave the impression of loyalty to the regime; but he cryptically entrusted his true feelings to his compositions, many of which could only be performed after Stalin's death. It was only the publication of Shostakovich's Memoirs by Solomon Volkov ("Testimony", 1979) that revealed many of his intentions - although these are still controversial in their authenticity.

With the death of Stalin in 1953, a "thaw" began for Shostakovich. There were performances of his operas, and he rose to high positions. Thus, Shostakovich was appointed chairman of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic - for which he had to join the CPSU. He never forgave himself for that. His last years were marked by serious illness. Shostakovich died on August 9, 1975 in Moscow.

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich left an extensive and diverse oeuvre with 15 symphonies, instrumental concerts, stage works, film music, vocal works, piano and chamber music. His 15 string quartets, an important counterpart to the symphonies, are among the major chamber music works of the 20th century.