Perhaps more than that of any great composer, Shostakovich's music is inseparable from the ideology of his time and country. And much can be learned about the composer and what went into the works from what he – and his contemporaries – said while he was composing them. We have compiled 11 quotes that give more than a hint as to how Shostakovich's music wasn't always what it seemed…


1. On music’s beauty

‘A great piece of music is beautiful regardless of how it is performed. Any prelude or fugue of Bach can be played at any tempo, with or without rhythmic nuances, and it will still be great music. That's how music should be written, so that no-one, no matter how philistine, can ruin it.’ – in a letter to Isaac Glikman, 1955

2. On laughter in music

‘What can be considered human emotions? Surely not only lyricism, sadness, tragedy? Doesn't laughter also have a claim to that lofty title? I want to fight for the legitimate right of laughter in ‘‘serious’’ music.’ – Sovetskoye, 1934

3. On a pleasing finish

‘I finished the Fifth Symphony in the major and fortissimo… It would be interesting to know what would have been said if I finished it pianissimo and in the minor?’ – 1936 (alluding to the Fouth Symphony, which does just that)

4. On composing

‘If they cut off both hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth.’ – 1936

5. On despair

‘When a man is in despair, it means that he still believes in something.’ – Testimony

6. On his first mature opera, The Nose

‘I live in the USSR, work actively and count naturally on the worker and peasant spectator. If I am not comprehensible to them I should be deported.’ – 1930

7. On ideology

‘There can be no music without ideology. The old composers, whether they knew it or not, were upholding a political theory. Most of them, of course, were bolstering the rule of the upper classes. Only Beethoven was a forerunner of the revolutionary movement. If you read his letters, you will see how often he wrote to his friends that he wished to give new ideas to the public and rouse it to revolt against its masters.’ – New York Times, 1931

8. On his Violin Sonata

‘Play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience start leaving the hall from sheer boredom.’ – 1975

9. Critic Daniil Zhitomirsky on Shostakovich

‘Who should dare hint that Shostakovich does not share the general delight in our victory over Hitler? His Symphony does not reflect this triumphal, fanfare-like reality, but the opposite. It has … integrity in the face of monstrous evil, sorrow and anger.’ – 1943 (on Symphony No. 8)

10. Composer Pierre Boulez on Shostakovich

Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time, I find. It's like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler.’

11. Conductor Nicolas Slonimsky on Shostakovich

'Not since the time of Berlioz has a symphonic composer created such a stir. In far-away America, great conductors vie with each other for the jus primae noctis of his music. The score of his Seventh Symphony, the symphony of struggle and victory, has been reduced to a roll of microfilm and flown half-way across the world ... to speed the day of the American premiere. How the old romantics would have loved to be the center of such a fantastic adventure!' – The Music Quarterly, 1942


Illustration: Risko