Dmitry Shostakovich – a summary

A child prodigy, Dmitry Shostakovich, born 25 September 1906, completed the first of his fifteen symphonies at the age of nineteen. During the early years of Stalin’s rule, he and fellow artists enjoyed a period of creative freedom but Stalin brought this period to an abrupt end in 1932 when all forms of avant-garde creativity were banned.

Muddle Not Music

Dmitry ShostakovichIt was in 1932 that Shostakovich’s second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District, was first performed to gushing reviews. It survived for four years enjoying unqualified success until, approaching the height of the Great Terror, in 1936, Stalin decided to attend a performance. (1936 was a difficult year for Shostakovich’s family – both his brother-in-law and mother-in-law were arrested that year). Shostakovich was in the audience and from the corner of his eye, watched in horror at the expressions of distaste on the dictator’s face. Obliged to take a bow at the end of the performance, Shostakovich looked ‘as white as a sheet’.

Within days, a review appeared in Pravda entitled ‘Muddle Not Music’, widely believed to have been penned by Stalin himself: ‘Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.’ (Click for the full text of the Muddle Not Music review).

The opera was immediately withdrawn and reassessed. The authors of rave reviews now rushed to publish revised reviews condemning the work and apologising for failing to see its inadequacies first time round. Shostakovich’s fall from grace was spectacular. With his works banned and labelled as an enemy of the people, he fully expected to be arrested at any moment and reportedly slept fully clothed with a packed suitcase at hand.

In his next work, Symphony no.5, subtitled, A Soviet Artist’s Reply To Just Criticism, Shostakovich fell over himself to tow the official line and through it he managed to salvage his reputation and ensure his survival. Its premiere was received with a thirty minute standing ovation.

Shostakovich’s next work was the score for the film The Great Citizen, a biopic commissioned by Stalin about the life and death of Sergei Kirov, assassinated in 1934 by a lone gunman (although rumours persist to this day that it was Stalin himself who ordered the liquidation of the party favourite). The film portrayed Kirov as the martyr and Stalin his avenger.

Leningrad Symphony 

With the outbreak of war in 1941, and the start of the epic 900-day Leningrad Siege, Shostakovich, living in the city, tried to enlist for the Red Army: ‘Until now I have known only peaceful work. But now I am ready to take up arms.’ But his good intentions were dashed by the military, rejected because of his poor eyesight.

Considered too famous to be so exposed to risk, the city authorities tried to make the composer leave but, loyal to the city, he stayed. He was allowed to take his turn on fire warden duty. The American magazine, Time, featured the composer on its cover, wearing a golden helmet and holding a fireman’s nozzle, with the caption, ‘Fireman Shostakovich’. Meanwhile, he began work on what would become his Seventh Symphony.

Eventually, he was ordered to leave. On 1 October, with his wife and children, and the manuscript of his score stuffed in his suitcase, Shostakovich bid farewell to the city of his birth. While he was gone, someone ate his dog.

Evacuated to the town of Kuibyshev (modern-day Samara), 900 miles south-east of Leningrad, Shostakovich worked feverishly on the symphony while producing short works to entertain the troops on the frontline, tunes with catchy titles such as The Fearless Guards Regiment is on the Move.

By the end of the year, the symphony was done. Nicknamed the Leningrad and dedicated to ‘our struggle against fascism, to our coming victory and to my native city of Leningrad’, it received its world première, broadcast to the nation, in Kuibyshev on 5 March 1942, followed by a performance in Moscow three weeks later. Its Leningrad première, on 9 August 1942, is remembered as a performance of epic proportions.

Anti-people music

Dmitry ShostakovichFollowing the war, Shostakovich suffered a second denunciation when Andrey Zhdanov, the former Party leader in Leningrad, launched a policy of artistic tightening, rejecting all Western influences within Soviet art. Known as the ‘Zhdanov Doctrine’, Shostakovich’s work was again banned and labelled as ‘anti-people music’, and Shostakovich was forced to publicly recant his ‘mistakes’.

Again, fearing arrest, Shostakovich composed a number of film scores and pieces of music deemed suitable for the regime. In one, a cantata entitled Song of the Forests, he referred to Stalin as the ‘great gardener’.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich enjoyed another revival of his fortunes. In 1961, in an attempt to appease the regime, he joined the Communist Party, although he later told his wife he had been ‘blackmailed’ into it.

A rabid fan

In 1962, he married for the third time to a woman 29 years his junior. But in 1965 he was diagnosed as having polio and suffered his first heart attack.

Shostakovich’s other obsession, besides music, was football. A devoted fan of his local team, Zenit Leningrad, and a qualified football referee, he was according to the Soviet writer, Maxim Gorky, ‘a rabid fan… He comported himself like a little boy, leapt up, screamed and gesticulated’ during matches.

A lifelong chain smoker, Shostakovich died of lung cancer on 9 August 1975 – exactly thirty-three years after the Leningrad première of his most enduring work.

LeningradRupert Colley

See also article on Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, Leningrad and HIAH’s review of the 2011 film 900 Days.

Read more about the Leningrad siege in The Siege of Leningrad: History In An Hour and Stalin: History In An Hour both by Rupert Colley, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

Rupert Colley’s novel, The Black Maria, a tale of love, terror and fear, set in Stalinist Russia, is now available.