Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a Russian composer and pianist who worked in many different styles and forms. While he is primarily known for his symphonies and string quartets, he also composed several operas, orchestral suites, concertos, and much piano music. Along with that of Sergei Prokofiev, Shostakovich's music is almost universally considered by critics and listeners to be among the most compelling to come out of the stifling creative atmosphere of the Soviet Union.
Shostakovich's compositional legacy is complicated by the demands of the repressive political environment in which he lived. He was required to occasionally write obsequious and banal works which satisfied the doctrines of Socialist Realism. Additionally, in the USSR, every new work had to be vetted by a committee of members from the Communist Party's Composer's Union, which tried to ensure that no ideological rules were being broken. For reasons that perhaps will never be understood (and apparently against his will), Shostakovich also joined the Communist Party himself in 1960.
During the siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich lived in the city and wrote his Seventh Symphony in C major (subtitled "Leningrad"). The work is notable for an extended march section in the first movement, building up an intentionally banal tune in a manner reminiscent of Ravel's "Bolero". The symphony was premiered in Leningrad in 1942, and flown out of Russia in microfilm score, and was premiered in the USA under the baton of Toscanini very shortly afterwards. The symphony, which ends with a triumphant conclusion, described by the composer as "victory - a beautiful life in the future" , was a significant propaganda coup.
However, the composer's next two symphonies were not well received by the authorities - the Eighth symphony in C minor also depicted the war, and ended in a pessimistic, exhausted fashion. The Ninth symphony was completed just after the war. The authorities expected a massive paean of triumph at the end of the war, on the scale of Beethoven's Ninth symphony. What Shostakovich delivered was a small scale, lightweight work with considerable humor and irony. This led to the composer being severely criticised as "formalist" in the notorious "Zhdanov decree" of 1948.
His large scale work for piano, the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87, (1951) was also criticized at the Composer's union for being too abstract and "formalist".
In his later years, Shostakovich's music became increasingly personal, and often involving the theme of death. Notably, the Fourteenth Symphony (1968) is a series of eleven songs on the theme of death. In contrast to many classical works dealing with death, the Fourteenth symphony does not seek to offer religious consolation. The late String Quartets, notably the Thirteenth (Op. 138) and the Fifteenth (Op. 144) are similarly bleak and death-obsessed. Shostakovich's final work is a sonata for viola and piano (Op. 147) which was completed a few days before his death from lung cancer in 1975.
The Testimony controversy - Was Shostakovich a secret dissident?
Because of his public actions as a member of the Communist Party, which included signing letters of condemnation against any musician who ran afoul of the authorities, as well as his official pronouncements on several of his symphonies' meanings (all conveniently fitting in with a Socialist Realist program), Shostakovich died being celebrated as a loyal son of the Party.
This picture was complicated, to say the least, when in 1979 Russian émigré journalist Solomon Volkov released what he claimed were Shostakovich's official memoirs. Testimony, which Volkov claimed to be compiled from several personal interviews with the ailing composer in his last months, first put forth the supposition that Shostakovich's music contained hidden messages which the audience could easily interpret. These messages showed signs of dissidence against the Communist regime, and satirized the aims of Socialist Realism. A well-known example of this is the conclusion of the Fifth Symphony (1937), viewed by the authorities as a triumphant conclusion. However, in Testimony,Shostakovich was supposed to have said that the end of the Fifth symphony is about enforced rejoicing.
Testimony hit the musicological and political worlds like a meteor. The Soviet government was quick to denounce the alleged memoirs, and began a swift PR campaign to discredit Volkov. Shostakovich: About his Life and Times was soon released, which musicologist Ian MacDonald has called a "KGB snow job," and which reproduces speeches and official articles published under Shostakovich's name throughout his life. These articles, which friends of the composer claim were written by party officials and which he had no choice but to sign, reinforced the image of the composer as a loyal Communist.
Then came an article by Laurel Fay in 1980, in which she viciously attacked Volkov's credibility further, claiming that he had plagiarized most of it, and that the rest was pure fantasy. Fay's own credibility has been questioned by MacDonald, who also questions her possible political motives and suspects her of holding Communist sympathies, as she had been a student in Leningrad in the late 1970's, and was the first American allowed into the Shostakovich archives. While it is true that much of the more innocuous material in Testimony appears in earlier Soviet publications, this is not definitive proof that Volkov plagiarized; it is also possible (and plausible, given Shostakovich's photographic memory) that the composer recited the stories in question to Volkov in much the same form as he had previously written them.
Dozens of Shostakovich's friends and confidants who had previously emigrated to the West, such as Mstislav Rostropovich and the composer's own son, Maxim, were quick to defend the statements of Testimony as being very characteristic of how he talked and believed in private. Their recollections have been recorded in Allan B. Ho and Dmitri Feofanov's Shostakovich Reconsidered, published in 1998, and have more or less settled the question of Testimony's veracity for most scholars. Among Western scholars, the faction that refuses to acknowledge the book's credibility as a source now consists primarily of Fay, Richard Taruskin, and Malcolm Harrick Brown.
- Symphony #1 in F Minor, Op. 10 (1924)
- Symphony #5 in D Minor, Op. 47 (1937)
- Symphony #7 in C Major, Op. 65 "Leningrad" (1941)
- Symphony #9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70 (1945)
- Symphony #10 in E Minor, Op. 93 (1953)
- Symphony #13 in B-flat Minor "Babi Yar," for bass, bass chorus, and orchestra (1962)
- Symphony #14 for soprano, bass, string orchestra, and percussion, Op. 135 (1969)
- Symphony #15 in A Major, Op. 141 (1971)
- Piano Concerto #1 in C Minor, Op. 35 (1933)
- Violin Concerto #1 in A Minor, Op. 77 (1947-48)
- Cello Concerto #1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107 (1959)
- Sonata in D Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 40 (1934)
- Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 (1940)
- Piano Trio #2 in E Minor, Op. 67 (1944)
- String Quartet #4 in D Major, Op. 83 (1949)
- String Quartet #7 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 108 (1960)
- String Quartet #8 in C Minor, Op. 110 (1960)
- String Quartet #10 in A-flat Major, Op. 118 (1964)
- String Quartet #12 in D-flat Major, Op. 133 (1968)
- Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134 (1968)
- String Quartet #15 in E-flat Minor, Op. 144 (1974)
- Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 (1975)
- From Jewish Folk Poetry, for soprano, contralto, tenor, and piano (also orchestrated by the composer), Op. 79 (1948)
- Suite on verses by Michaelangelo Buonarroti for bass and piano/orchestra, Op.145/145a (1974/75)
- Three Fantastic Dances for piano, Op. 5 (1922)
- Twenty-Four Preludes for piano, Op. 34 (1932-33)
- Piano Sonata #2 in B Minor, Op. 61 (1943)
- Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 (1950-51)
- MacDonald, Ian. The New Shostakovich, 1988
- Fay, Laurel. Shostakovich: A Life, 2000.
- Wilson, Elizabeth. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, 1995
- Fay, Laurel: "Shostakovich versus Volkov: Whose Testimony?" – The Russian Review, vol. 39 no. 4 (October 1980) pp. 484–493