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Prominent Russians: Dmitry Shostakovich

September 25, 1906 – August 9, 1975
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Musician's quest

Dmitry Shostakovich is the author of fifteen wide-ranging symphonies, from the First Symphony of 1925, a graduation composition, to the embittered Thirteenth based on the poetry of Evgeny Yevtushenko. .

But Shostakovich is also a figure whose story raises challenging and exciting issues that go far beyond music; questions of conscience, the moral role of the artist and the plight of humanity in the face of total war and mass oppression, during one of history's bloodiest century.

As a general rule, Shostakovich was incredibly modest and did not like to talk about his music. He was also a very nervous person, but this could well have been a consequence of all the terror he had been subjected over time – first in 1936, then in 1948 and afterwards in 1962.

Music against the Red Terror

The Bolshevik Revolution took place when Dmitry Shostakovich was a boy of 11. His life and career from then on coincided with, and in a sense mirrored, the rise and eventual failure of the Soviet communist regime. Shostakovich lived the great bulk of his career under Stalin.

He saw friends taken away in the purges, never to return. He witnessed the disappearances of the inhabitants of entire blocks of flats and entire families. He used to say that one could be with a family in the evening and the next day the door of their flat would be open and the family gone.

He alluded to such things in his 14th Symphony, a protest against death, violence and imprisonment.

People lived such horrible lives, beaten down by the reality that surrounded them, that many had no energy for Shostakovich's music. The music itself however – through its very existence – was a incitement to fight oppression, an encouragement to find inner strength and overcome fear while actively searching for justice, not waiting for it to be handed down from above.

Shostakovich knew Stalin personally and was singled out by him for criticism. Stalin played a strange game, attacking the composer in Pravda while showering him with awards. This has led to a misunderstanding of Shostakovich's political sympathies. Shostakovich was not just the single most important composer of string quartets and symphonies from the 1920s to the 1970s, he was a witness to everything that was happening in his Motherland.

Family background

Though the Shostakovich family was of Polish-Lithuanian extraction, the composer's immediate forebears came from Siberia. Dmitry Boleslavovich Shostakovich, the composer's father, was born in exile in Narïm in 1875 and attended St. Petersburg University, graduating in 1899 from the faculty of physics and mathematics.

After graduation, he went to work as an engineer under Dmitry Mendeleyev at the Bureau of Weights and Measures in St. Petersburg. In 1903, he married Sofia Vasilyevna Kokoulina.

Dmitry Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd after the 1917 Revolution and later becoming Leningrad) in 1906. After his father's death in 1922, he obtained a scholarship from the Borodin Foundation. In need of a job, he accepted a contract as a pianist in a movie theatre.


Shostakovich studied piano and composition at the Petrograd Conservatory, graduating in 1925.

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In the immediate post revolutionary period, the Petrograd Conservatory changed little from pre-Revolutionary days. At the helm of the institution was a prodigious late-nineteenth-century composer-turned-respected administrator, Aleksandr Glazunov, who was a living link to the venerable traditions of Rimsky-Korsakov and the golden age of Russian music.

He provided a source of continuity and stability for the institution through uncertain times. Glazunov's tireless devotion to the cause of professional music, his active involvement in all aspects of conservatory life, and his magnanimous disregard for his personal tastes in the identification and advancement of gifted young musicians earned him the universal respect and affection of students and colleagues.

Shostakovich was a needy and grateful beneficiary of Glazunov's protection. At a time of civil unrest and widespread starvation, Glazunov traded on his considerable prestige to promote the budding young musician and monitored the progress of his protégé closely.

Dmitry's first year at the conservatory, 1919-1920, was an especially difficult one.

Throughout the winter, the lack of heat in the conservatory building forced students to attend classes and concerts bundled in overcoats and hats, taking off their gloves only to write exercises. With public transport unreliable or inaccessible, Dmitry was obliged each day to cover on foot the considerable distance between his home (on Marat Street) and the conservatory.

His graduation composition was the extraordinary Symphony No. 1. Performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1926, this popular work effectively launched the young musician's career as a composer.


His Symphony No. 2, written in 1927, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, received a lukewarm reception and Shostakovich turned to a new project, an opera entitled The Nose.

His 4th Symphony – which, like Lady Macbeth, was infused with the dissonant sound characteristic of much modern music – was already in rehearsal. But the piece was not premiered until 1960.

In its place, Shostakovich offered his 5th Symphony. With its more classically structured harmonies, the 5th promised not to offend conservative ears and many denounced him as a formalist. At that point in his life Shostakovich was going through a terrible personal drama.

He was in love with a woman who refused to become his wife. She left for Spain where she married a man named Roman Carmen, and for Shostakovich she became his Carmen who'd rejected him. That is why in his 5th Symphony the musical themes from Bizet's opera Carmen have such an important role.

In 1932 Shostakovich married the young experimental physicist Nina Varzar. At the end of that same year he finished his second opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk which opened in 1934 in Moscow and Leningrad to such success that it remained in poster for about two years.


In 1936, while still on the rise, Shostakovich was attacked in an editorial in Pravda newspaper entitled Muddle Instead of Music. Reportedly ordered by Stalin himself, the editorial targeted the composer's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which had already been performed an estimated 200 times to wide acclaim in the Soviet Union and abroad. “The ability of good music to enthral the masses has been sacrificed on the altar of petit-bourgeois formalism,” charged the editorial, published two days after the Soviet leader attended a performance. “Such games can only finish badly.”

In 1936 Dimitry wrote to a friend: “I'm grieved, I don't know what I can or must to do. I concentrate only on finishing the symphony I have started.”

In 1936 and 1938 his children, Galina and Maksim respectively were born.

The Leningrad Symphony

His rehabilitation appeared complete when, in 1942, his 7th Symphony, Leningrad was performed in the Soviet Union, London and New York.

The 7th Symphony is considered to be a war symphony with universal appeal. Viktor Kozlov, a clarinettist who played in the first performance by the Leningrad Symphony during the siege of Leningrad recalls:

“The music played a big role in raising the morale of the people of Leningrad, particularly during the blockade. They say that he composed it from a Communist point of view, but it had nothing to do with politics or communists. He composed his music the way he felt and the way it should be.”

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During the period of the siege and the hunger, Leningrad’s Radio Committee Orchestra stayed in the city. It was only a small orchestra – about 25 musicians. Mravinsky's Orchestra left for Kuybyshev.

Shostakovich also remained in the city for the first year of the siege, managing to write the first two parts of the symphony. He was then told to leave the city for Kuybyshev where he completed the final two parts. It was then decided to premiere the symphony in Kuybyshev, causing, according to Kozlov, speculation:

“The people of Leningrad found out and asked why, if the symphony was dedicated to the city of Leningrad, and to the siege of Leningrad, was it premiered in another city? After some time the Radio Committee Orchestra received the score and began writing out the instrumental parts.

It turned out that the orchestra would need 80 people while they only had 25. They announced over the radio that they wanted musicians to come to the Radio Committee and play in the orchestra. So people began arriving but they were old – the younger ones were all in the army.

They took in violinists but they had no wind instrument players so they turned to the army and asked if they could use us. That's how I ended up playing in the orchestra as a clarinettist.

We began our rehearsals – it was during the peak of hunger when everybody was starving – we were sitting there playing not having had any food. The first rehearsals were only between 15 and 20 minutes long. Those of us playing wind instruments couldn't play properly – we were unable to hold our lips, we couldn't strain and our lips became weak.

Slowly the rehearsals became longer, and then on 9 August 1942 Shostakovich's 7th Symphony was performed at the Philharmonic Orchestra premises in Leningrad. It's interesting that the Germans were sending out tickets for 9 August also saying that they were going to celebrate their victory at the Astoria hotel.

It was precisely on that day that Shostakovich's 7th Symphony was performed to show them that the city was still alive and functioning.

The audience received us very, very well. There was a lot of applause and standing ovations – one woman even gave the conductor flowers – imagine, there was nothing in the city then and yet this one woman found flowers somewhere. It was wonderful.”

After Stalin

Then in 1953 Yevgeny Mravinsky inaugurated Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, an emblem of the on-going poliical “thaw.” It is significant to note that the symphony was written in 1953, a few months after the death of Stalin, who had ruled the Soviet people with an iron fist for 31 years.

Symphony No. 10 appeared eight years after No. 9 – an immense gap for a composer as prolific and focused as Shostakovich.

Love story

The composer incorporated a personal love story in the symphony. Teacher and student had first met in the autumn of 1947 in Moscow. By that time, Elmira Nazirova was already known in Azerbaijan as a promising young musician. In her youth, she had been considered a child prodigy at Baku Music School, which was under the umbrella of the Azerbaijan Conservatory.

Her first professional achievements were so impressive that in 1942, at the age of 14, she was invited to join Azerbaijan's Composers' Union.

Nazirova was encouraged to continue her education at the world-reputed Moscow Conservatory, where she came to study piano with Yakov Zak and composition with Dmitry Shostakovich.

Under persecution again

A few months after her arrival in Moscow, Shostakovich was to face what would be the most trying period of his life. A decree was passed by the Communist Party, severely criticizing Shostakovich and others for what they felt were their superfluous focus on writing symphonic and dissonant music; that is, music without melody, containing “rough” harmonies.

It was a terrible time for the great composer, resulting in his dismissal from the Moscow Conservatory. Mstislav Rostropovich recalls how he entered the conservatory and read the announcement that Shostakovich would not be returning as their professor. Everyone was in shock.

The Tenth Symphony

The composer’s relationship with Nazirova evolved at this time into one of a new and ever-growing intellectual intimacy. They met frequently, took long walks, listened to Beethoven and Mahler and argued about various issues related to music and life. Shostakovich made suggestions to Elmira about her new compositions, and encouraged her to turn her attention to specific genres or forms. At the same time, he shared his own creative ideas.

Shostakovich valued her thoughts and opinions on his own compositions. The composer informed her about each step of his work on the Tenth Symphony. He alluded to the apparent impasse that would come of their relationship: “Will our paths ever meet? Perhaps, not. There are many, many, reasons for that”.

For many years, critics remained puzzled by the dominant musical phrases in the Third Movement: What did they mean? Some analysts guessed that they were calls; others interpreted them as a description of nature. Others suggested, though unconvincingly, that they were a portrait of Stalin. Nobody imagined what the real meaning was.

The true story behind the Tenth Symphony has finally been revealed, despite the secrecy maintained for nearly half a century. The story of the genius Shostakovich and his idealized love is now written in music history. It is depicted through the reminiscences of a gracious and immensely talented woman, distinguished by her charisma and magnetism.

Latter years and work

Shostakovich went on to write another eight symphonies and complete his set of 15 quartets.

Painting by Tair Salakhov (Image from Painting by Tair Salakhov
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In 1959 he was appointed the first secretary of the Soviet Composers Union.

Shostakovich was a very complex person and some questions about him may forever remain answered. Why did Shostakovich decide, for example, to join the Communist Party in 1960, when artists no longer faced the same danger and pressure from the state that had characterized the Stalinist era?

That move has variously been described as an act of commitment to the socialist idea, a final surrender or the result of much political harassment. In a 1999 interview, just hours before he was to conduct his father's 4th Symphony in St. Petersburg, Maxim said that the day his father joined the party was one of only two times he ever saw his father cry.

The other came when Nina Varzar, Shostakovich's first wife and Maxim's mother, died in December 1954.

Death and legacy

At his death, in 1975, Shostakovich was buried with full state honours in Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery. He was described in obituaries in the Soviet Union and the West as a loyal communist. He was hailed as a 'hero of the people.'

It is not only Shostakovich’s personal suffering that can be heard in his music, but his compassion for the suffering of those around him.

“It's the people who lived through those very difficult and tense times of the Stalinist regime – these people will have a particularly acute understanding of the music. Shostakovich's music is obviously a terrible indictment of those times.

I am deeply convinced that it is a truer document than any memoir or work of literature or even any documentary film. The music of Shostakovich … conveys the frightful atmosphere of the period in an incredible way – the ice-cold horror which penetrated through the whole life of the country.

It has this hopelessly inconsolable quality. It's a dark music.” – Tigran Alikhanov, Rector of the Moscow Conservatory.

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