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Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975)

Dmitri Shostakovich

born: 25 September 1906
died: 9 August 1975
country: Russia

After early piano lessons with his mother, Shostakovich enrolled at the Petrograd Conservatoire in 1919. He announced his Fifth Symphony of 1937 as ’a Soviet artist’s practical creative reply to just criticism’. A year before its premiere he had drawn a stinging attack from the official Soviet mouthpiece Pravda, in which Shostakovich’s initially successful opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was condemned for its ’leftist bedlam’ and extreme modernism. With the Fifth Symphony came acclaim not only from the Russian audience, but also from musicians and critics over seas.

Shostakovich lived through the first months of the German siege of Leningrad serving as a member of the auxiliary fire service. In July he began work on the first three movements of his Seventh Symphony, completing the defiant finale after his evacuation in October and dedicating the score to the city. A microfilm copy was despatched by way of Teheran and an American warship to the USA, where it was broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Toscanini. In 1943 Shostakovich completed his Eighth Symphony, its emotionally shattering music compared by one critic to Picasso’s Guernica.

In 1948 Shostakovich and other leading composers, Prokofiev among them, were forced by the Soviet cultural commissar, Andrei Zhdanov, to concede that their work represented ’most strikingly the formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies in music’, a crippling blow to Shostakovich’s artistic freedom that was healed only after the death of Stalin in 1953. Shostakovich answered his critics later that year with the powerful Tenth Symphony, in which he portrays ’human emotions and passions’, rather than the collective dogma of Communism.

from notes by Andrew Stewart © 2004

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