Who was Shostakovich?

Dmitri Shostakovich was a Soviet-era Russian composer and pianist, and one of the most important musical figures of the 20th century. His 15 symphonies and, even more so, his 15 string quartets cross a vast emotional terrain and harness a fascinating variety of musical styles.

Like Mahler, whom Shostakovich much admired, Shostakovich used different musical techniques, often displaying sharp contrasts and mixing disparate moods such as bleakness and grotesquerie.

When was Shostakovich born?

Dmitri Shostakovich was born on 25 September 1906 in St Petersburg, a city which would play a defining role in his life and music. He was the second of three children born to Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich, an engineer at the city's Bureau of Weights and Measures in Saint Petersburg, and Sofiya Vasilievna Kokoulina. Both Shostakovich's parents had roots in Siberia.

Where did Shostakovich grow up?

Shostakovich grew up in St Petersburg, the city of his birth.

What was his childhood like?

The young Shostakovich started piano lessons with his mother at the age of nine, and showed impressive talent. He would often be able to play, from memory, a piece that his mother had played for him during the previous lesson.

This early promise saw Shostakovich enrolled, at the age of 13, at the Conservatory in Petrograd, as St Petersburg was by then known (Shostakovich would know his native city under three names: for much of his life it was known as Leningrad). The head of the Conservatory was the composer and teacher Alexander Glazunov, who monitored the young composer's progress and made sure he had opportunities to compose and perform.

What are Shostakovich's most famous pieces?

A useful Shostakovich primer for anyone new to the composer would include his Fifth and Tenth Symphonies. Of his six concertos, four are most often heard in concert halls: the two Piano Concertos, the First Cello Concerto and the First Violin Concerto.

Then, on the chamber music side, we'd recommend starting with Shostakovich's extraordinary, arresting Eighth String Quartet, which grippingly manages to depict the horrors of war via the string quartet form. Other key chamber pieces include the Piano Trio and the Piano Quintet, a favourite of pianist Martha Argerich among others. Check out this wonderful performance from Argerich, cellist Mischa Maisky, violinists Joshua Bell and Henning Kraggerud, and violist Yuri Bashmet:

Then, for something lighter and more uplifting, we'd also recommend some of Shostakovich's shorter pieces - such as the Waltz No. 2 or the 'Tahiti Trot', the composer's 1927 orchestration of an arrangement of 'Tea for Two' from the musical No, No, Nanette by Vincent Youmans.

Finally, we'd recommend the 24 Preludes and Fugues, one in each of the major and minor keys of the chromatic scale. These show a fascinating working-through of the possibilities within each key, and are thought to be a musical tribute to Bach's own set of 48 preludes and fugues, The Well-Tempered Clavier.

What is Shostakovich's style?

At the height of the Cold War, it was fashionable among Western critics to denigrate Shostakovich. He was, they claimed, a banal and morally weak composer who had been forced to sacrifice his creative individuality in order to survive the oppressive demands of the Soviet system.

Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about Shostakovich’s music is its striking individuality. As a spokesman for the oppressed Soviet people, Shostakovich forged a unique musical language drawing heavily upon images of brutal irony, hysterical anger, bitter introspection and mock optimism. It was an idiom that was capable of subtle innuendo, yet its raw materials are derived from familiar models.

The 19th-century Russian tradition is paramount, for Shostakovich’s style appears to combine the neurotic pathos of Tchaikovsky with the harsh realism of Musorgsky. More contemporary influences also prevailed – the austerity of Stravinsky, the sardonic wit of Prokofiev, and the frenzied expressionism of Berg especially spring to mind.

And the link with Mahler is crucial. Both composers conceived of the symphony as an epic form ‘representing the whole world’. Both composers were fond of juxtaposing passages of banality and profundity to disturbing effect.

Arguably, it’s this Mahlerian juxtaposition of opposites that lies at the very heart of Shostakovich’s world. Everything about the composer seems to be cloaked in ambiguity.

Duality is of the essence. It’s already there in the First Symphony (1925), regarded by many as the most assured symphony ever written by a 19 year-old.

Was Shostakovich famous during his lifetime?

Indeed, the astonishing maturity of this work immediately brought Shostakovich into the spotlight. He was touted abroad as the Soviet Union’s most promising composing talent and his work was taken up by such eminent conductors as Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini.

But at home the composer suffered something of a crisis as he struggled to fulfil his potential. Against the cultural background of the 1920s, which in the Soviet Union appeared to encourage a liaison between revolutionary politics and the Western avant-garde, Shostakovich threw in his lot with the modernists.

It was a period of experiment from which sprang several provocative works, including the satirical opera The Nose, inspired by Gogol, the incidental music to Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug, the comedy revue Allegedly Murdered and a full-length film score, New Babylon.

Although Shostakovich was exploiting his talents as a caricaturist, the introspective lyricism explored in the latter half of the First Symphony increasingly came to the fore. It appeared most powerfully in the desolate slow movement of the 1934 Cello Sonata.

How was Shostakovich's work received in Communist Russia?

Yet the real turning-point was his second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, composed during the same year. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s 19th-century story of the passion and murderous brutality of the wife of a provincial merchant, the opera coalesces the two contrasting sides of Shostakovich’s musical personality to produce a theatre work of compelling intensity.

Initially hailed in his native country as the first truly Soviet opera, Lady Macbeth was acclaimed abroad, where it received highly successful performances in the USA and in Europe. But the tide soon turned against Shostakovich.

Stalin was the root cause. Under his leadership, the Soviet regime rejected its former tolerance of modernism and the right to freedom of expression. The new doctrine of Socialist Realism was being formulated, requiring Soviet music to express ‘the victorious progressive principles of reality in images that are heroic, bright and beautiful’.

Lady Macbeth with its strident musical idiom, its scenes of sex and violence, and grotesque caricatures of officialdom, hardly squared with such ideals. The crunch came after Stalin heard the opera in January 1936 and walked out before the final act.

What was Shostakovich's relationship with the Soviet authorities?

A couple of days later, an article appeared in Pravda lambasting the work as ‘chaos instead of music’ and a ‘pornographic insult to the Soviet people’. Shostakovich was warned that unless he changed his ways ‘things could end very badly’ for him.

For a year Shostakovich remained persona non grata. Never again would he dare to complete an opera. But the crisis also forced him to rethink his whole creative outlook. It was a question of survival without compromising his integrity. The Fifth Symphony, subtitled a ‘Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’, was his response.

Shostakovich's best symphonies

First performed at a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, it was a triumphant success, satisfying the authorities with its simpler musical language. Yet the audience at the first performance interpreted the symphony very differently. ‘They understood its message of sorrow, suffering and isolation,’ commented his closed friend Mstislav Rostropovich.

This message of sorrow, suffering and isolation pervades the later symphonies. Examples include the wartime Leningrad (No. 7), according to the composer, a requiem for the city that ‘Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished’.

The same applies to the impudent Ninth, which cocked a snook at Stalin’s desired victory symphony, and the Tenth, whose demonic scherzo is reputedly a musical portrait of the Soviet dictator. The same issues are distilled, though in a more intimate manner, in the cycle of 15 string quartets which Shostakovich began writing after the Fifth Symphony.

The sombre First Violin Concerto and the Fourth and Fifth Quartets, composed during this period, were consigned to the bottom drawer until the death of Stalin removed obstacles to their performance. With the change of leadership, a more tolerant artistic climate seemed to prevail.

To the outside world, Shostakovich appeared to have settled his differences with a regime that lavished him with his state prizes. Yet in reality he never deviated from composing music of protest.

Did Shostakovich marry?

Shostakovich married three times. He and his first wife, Nina Varzar, were married in 1932. The marriage initially lasted just three years, although Dmitri and Nina remarried when she became pregnant with their first child. That child was Galina Shostakovich, would go on to become a noted pianist and biologist.

The couple then had a second child, Maxim, in 1938. Similarly, Maxim Shostakovich became a famous conductor and pianist.

Shostakovich married his second wife, Margarita Kainova, in 1956. She worked as an activist for Komsomol, the youth Communist league: but the couple were not happy together, and divorced five years later.

Shostakovich married for the third and final time, to Irina Supinskaya, in 1962. This, it seems, was a happy marriage. Shostakovich wrote to a friend,'her only defect is that she is 27 years old. In all other respects she is splendid: clever, cheerful, straightforward and very likeable.'

When did Shostakovich die?

Dmitri Shostakovich died of heart failure on 9 August 1975, in Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital.

What was Shostakovich's last work?

His final work was the sparse, mournful Viola Sonata, which was first performed two months after the composer''s death, on 1 October 1975.

Who are the best Shostakovich performers?

Great Shostakovich interpreters include the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the violinist David Oistrakh, who left us great recordings of, respectively, the two Cello Concertos and the two Violin Concertos. Tatiana Nikolayeva set down a fine set of the 24 Preludes and Fugues. Great Shostakovich conductors, meanwhile, have included Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Barshai, Mariss Jansons, André Previn and Vasily Petrenko. And some of the greatest Shostakovich String Quartet cycles have come from the likes of the Borodin Quartet, the Beethoven Quartet, the Emerson Quartet, and the Cambridge-based Fitzwilliam Quartet.

What was Shostakovich like?

Shostakovich had, it seems, quite an obsessive temperament. His daughter revealed that he was 'obsessed with cleanliness', and it's also known that he synchronised the clocks in his apartment and regularly sent himself cards to test the efficiency of the Soviet postal service.

He was a generous man, who did his best to try to help constituents and fellow composers in his capacities as chairman of the Soviet Composers' Union and Deputy to the Supreme Soviet.

Last but not least, Shostakovich loved football. Life as an artist in Soviet Russia was difficult, stressful and at times frightening, and Shostakovich would unwind by watching his beloved Zenit Leningrad (now Zenit St Petersburg).

Erik Levi and Steve Wright