DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH’S work occupy a special place in the music of the twentieth century. His works are emblematic for the various genres in which he wrote – opera, orchestral and instrumental music, chamber and vocal works, movie scores, theatre productions, etc. His destiny as an artist is complex. Left to live and work in his homeland, he was forced to suffer the blows of the political regime. His music was praised and awarded the highest state honours, while at the same time being stigmatised as “formalistic and harmful” and his physical survival was threatened.
Shostakovich studied piano and composition at the Leningrad Conservatory (now St. Petersburg). His graduation work was his Symphony No. 1 op. 10. It was premiered on 12 May 1926 in the Great Hall of the Conservatory. The work brought the composer worldwide fame. Shostakovich gave concerts as a pianist, and in 1927 he participated in the First Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw and was awarded an honorary diploma. Since the early 1930s he has performed mainly his own works. (As soloist of his Piano Concerto No 2 he also appeared with the Sofia Philharmonic. This was Shostakovich’s first visit to Bulgaria. His Eighth Symphony was also performed under the baton of Konstantin Iliev on 10 and 12 January 1958.)
Experimenting with the means of musical expression, provoked by the possibilities of music to reveal the vivid imagery distinctive of his art, in the late 1920s – early 1930s Shostakovich actively wrote cinema and theatre scores. In 1928, he composed the opera based on Gogol’s Nose. The sharp satire also parodied traditional notions of this genre. After its performance in 1930, it was rejected by critics and political censors and was not staged in his homeland for many years.
An important stage in Shostakovich’s artistic evolution was his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk (Katerina Izmailova), based on the eponymous novella of Nikolai Leskov. It premiered in January 1934. In 1956, the composer made a revision. (Katerina Izmailova was first performed in Bulgaria at the Rousse Opera in 1965, directed by Evgeni Nemirov, conducted by Romeo Raichev. This was the composer’s second and last visit to Bulgaria.)
The work is striking for its drama and emotional musical language. In 1935-1937 the opera was performed in New York, Buenos Aires and on many European music stages. But after the publication of the harshly critical editorial in “Pravda” Daily of January 28th , 1936, the composer fell into a psychological crisis and turned mainly to instrumental genres.
Shostakovich composed: music for the stage; 15 symphonies, orchestral suites; instrumental concertos (2 for piano, 2 for violin and 2 for cello); 15 string quartets, a piano quintet, 2 piano trios in memory of his friend, the Russian musicologist and music critic Ivan Solertinsky (who died of a heart attack during the blockade of Leningrad in 1944) and other chamber opuses, theatre and film music.
Most of his symphonies embody the complexity of personal existence in a time marked by the decrees of the political regime and great general human upheavals. The images of fascism, of war and the reaction against them, experienced by the artist himself, are ingeniously rendered in works such as Symphony No. 7 “Leningradskaya” (1941) or Symphony No. 14, written for a small orchestra, based on poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker and Rilke (1969), united by the theme of death. Among the most significant works of the composer of other genres are the cycle of 24 preludes and fugues for piano (1951), vocal cycles Spanish Songs (1956), Five satyrs to the words of Sasha Chernoy (1960), Six poems by Marina Tsvetaeva (1973), Sonnets suite Michelangelo Buonarroti (1974).
In 1937-1941, and in 1945-1948, he taught instrumentation and composition at the Leningrad Conservatory, where from 1939 he held the position of professor. Since June 1943, at the invitation of the Director of the Moscow Conservatory and his friend Vissarion Shebalin, Shostakovich moved to Moscow and became a teacher of composition and instrumentation at the Moscow Conservatory.
1948 was one of the particularly critical years in Shostakovich’s life. In the autumn of 1948he learned from the Conservatory bulletin board that he was dismissed “for low professional level”. The reason was the Politburo Decree of February 10th of the same year, which was issued on the occasion of Stalin’s dissatisfaction with the opera “The Great Friendship” by the composer Vano Muradelli. But besides the author of this talentless opus, the Decree also includes the names of the most talented composers. Their work is defined as formalistic, alien to the Soviet people… First on the list is Shostakovich, followed by Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, Vissarion Shebalin, Gavriil Popov, Nikolai Myaskovsky and others. It was forbidden to perform their works in concerts, to play them in radio broadcasts, to publish them. Out of work, Shostakovich wrote film scores, sold scores from his library to support his family…13 years later, in 1958, Shostakovich was again appointed as a lecturer at the Leningrad Conservatory.
The composer received worldwide recognition. A testament to his place in twentieth-century culture is his membership of the most prestigious academic and cultural institutions. He was made an honorary member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music (1954), the Italian Academy of Santa Cecilia (1956), the Royal Academy of Music of Great Britain (1958) and the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (1965), and was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (France, 1958), honorary doctorate from Oxford University (1958), member of the US National Academy of Sciences (1959), corresponding member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts (1968) and the French Academy of Fine Arts (1975), among others.
He died on 9 August 1975 in Moscow.