In the years since the dissolution of the USSR, Shostakovich's reputation in the West has fluctuated wildly: for quite a while, he was considered an intellectually slavish servant of Soviet ideology and the aesthetic of Socialist Realism. In 1979, four years after Shostakovich's death, an alleged disciple of his named Solomon Volkov published what were purported to be Shostakovich's memoirs, constructed from long conversations Volkov claimed the two of them had before his death.

The book, which portrayed Shostakovich as a composer inhibited forcibly by a Soviet regime he despised totally and with great vitriol, dramatically altered the West's perception of him. As the Cold War still divided the world, a book which claimed that the (unquestionably) great composer was actually an anti-communist and loathed the USSR was of course met with success and credulity.

As it happens, however, most scholars now agree that Volkov faked the work, and did not know Shostakovich very well at all. Among Volkov's foremost critics is Shostakovich's widow, who claims that her husband met with Volkov very briefly, and that her husband bore no resemblance to the picture painted by the memoirs.

What is most likely is also what is most intuitive: Shostakovich probably loved his country, feared his government, and cared little for politics, preferring instead his music.

Early in his career he was hailed as the greatest Soviet composer (Stravinsky having been born in the tsarist era and having left the country), and was a favorite of Stalin. Stalin was notoriously fickle, however, and walked out of a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, an opera which had previously been quite successful.

To say the least, this devastated Shostakovich; he lost his position at the university, was roundly castigated by the music critics, and eventually had to apologize for his opera's alleged "petit-bourgeoisie" sympathies.

Stalin, however, resurrected him just as quickly after the Fifth Symphony, and Shostakovich's success continued for some time, although it is said that he kept a suitcase packed in case Stalin changed his mind.

In 1948, Andrei Zhdanov, the chief ideologue of the Soviet party and a close associate of Stalin, issued a decree on Russian music which forbade "formalism," an essentially meaningless term which could be applied to virtually any work. In this unfortunate instance, it was applied to Shostakovich, and once again he was humiliated and forced to repent, vowing to mend his ways. Again, however, he was soon enough returned to his original place at the pinnacle of the Soviet music hierarchy.

Despite the very severe difficulties that living in the Soviet Union caused him, he never defected, though he had numerous opportunities (including a trip to New York) and would have been fully supported by any Western nation.

As such, Shostakovich probably felt (as many people do) both affection and disdain for his country, and the end felt most strongly about his music (which, by the way, is wonderful, and I regret not discussing it instead).

Shostakovich was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, but he is also the modern composer about whom the greatest confusion exists. Was he working as a supporter of Soviet Russia, writing to praise the system that he lived under? Or did his music contain a critique of Stalinism? For many composers, their political ideas are irrelevant to an assessment of their music. But in the case of Shostakovich it is not possible to skirt around the question. He wrote music for the times that he lived in, music that was laden with political meaning.

At one end of the spectrum are views like those of J. Machlis, who believed that Shostakovich was a spokesperson for the 'USSR's stern but parental solicitude for Soviet artists.' At the other end of the scale is a 1990 biography by Ian MacDonald, in his book MacDonald argued that Lenin's regime was one of 'social extermination' and that the revolution created a cultural atmosphere 'bordering on sadism and pornography'. Shostakovich, argues MacDonald, was striving against this in the name of freedom and Western values.

Shostakovich was eleven when the Russian Revolution broke out, his family were sympathetic to the Bolsheviks (his father was an engineer) and took him to see the arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station. But, according to the controversial 'Testimony' smuggled out of Russia by Volkov, this great historical moment was lost on the composer, who was much more deeply shaken by the sight of a Cossack killing a boy with a sabre.

Although appearing as shy and distant, Shostakovich was as tough as the times demanded. In 1919, during the terrible year of fever, famine and cold, he worked for a while banging out piano accompaniments to films, while at the same time enrolling to learn composition in the Petrograd Conservatory. Fuel was so scarce that the school could barely keep a little fire alive, and only the student whose turn it was next on the piano was allowed to warm their hands.

During the 1920's the isolation of the Russian Revolution led to a demoralisation in the population, and at the same time, a new generation of careerists in the Russian Communist Party were rallied by Stalin to a take-over of society - their power became apparent in 1928 with the launch of the first Five Year Plan, which was also an attack on the living standards of workers and peasants.

The coming to power of a Stalinist bureaucracy was as devastating to culture as it was to basic rights. The new regime wanted works that legitimised their power, but in the language of socialism. Many artists obliged. Shostakovich remembered with bitterness how some of the great names of his day tried to ingratiate themselves with the new authorities. "There were many Russian creative artists who were infatuated by the person of our leader", he said to Volkov, "who rushed to create works of praise for him. Besides Mayakovsky, I could mention Eisenstein and his Ivan the Terrible, with music by Prokofiev."

When the young and little known Shostakovich was introduced to Mayakovsky, the great national poet disdainfully only offered the composer two fingers to touch, but Shostakovich was no fool and offered him just one in return. The poet was stunned at the audacity of this 'nobody' asserting themselves.

But Shostakovitch's assertiveness nearly cost him his life. As the USSR crammed a hundred years of industrial development into just ten, there was absolutely no room for dissent. In every walk of life, those who baulked at the demands of the regime were tortured, executed or deported to labour camps.

In 1934 Shostakovich wrote the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. This is an opera which seems to be concerned with the relationships within a family and their servants, but which suddenly veers off into a tale of the misery at the hands of the police. The portrayal of the chief of police as venal, sadistic and corrupt was not lost by the authorities, and indeed Stalin himself. On January 28th, 1936, Pravda came out with an attack on Shostakovich entitled 'Muddle Instead of Music'. The opera was taken offstage; his friends abandoned him, running for cover. A second editorial in Pravda used the ominous phrase 'this could end very badly' and labelled the composer an 'enemy of the people'. The Communist Party organised special meetings throughout the country to explain to its members the faults of a music of 'quacks, grunts and growls'.

Aesthetically the period of modernism within the arts that had flourished in the 1920's was well and truly over. Although the soviet regime found Shostakovich to be too experimental, in fact by contemporary European standards, he had not been particularly radical since his second (1927) and third (1929) symphonies. The composer's great crime was to have planted a subversive idea into his work.

For Shostakovich the next two years were the low point of his life. It was not just that he lived with the constant possibility of execution - this was the era when the executions following the great show trials were just the tip of the iceberg - but he was demoralised by how little resistance there was to Stalin. The betrayal of his friends and acquaintances was shameful. For a while the only way out seemed suicide, an idea which Shostakovich considered 'with relish' before rejecting it.

"I came out of the crisis stronger than before," he said, according to the smuggled notes, "more confident of my own strength. The hostile forces did not seem so omnipotent."

The crisis of 1936 was a pivotal moment in Shostakovich's life and career. Did he capitulate to Stalinism at this point? Or did he submerge his opposition deeper, and more abstractly, in his music? The debate hangs on an assessment of his Fifth Symphony.

After a year of isolation Shostakovich returned to public life with his Fifth Symphony, which was labelled by a reviewer for Pravda as 'a soviet artists reply to just criticism.' The new symphony was given close scrutiny by the authorities, with them going so far as to compare what percentage of the music was in a minor key and what percentage was in a major key. The symphony ends with a grand, apparently celebratory, finale. This satisfied the authorities in 1937.

But is this great symphony a praise poem to Stalinism? Unlike an opera, there is no real test of the programmatic intention of an abstract piece of music, which in this case was fortunate for Shostakovich, because there are clear emotional currents running through the music, most of which are clearly expressing terrible sorrow. When you listen to the finale, it does seem that it is forced, like a puppet marching proudly with a fixed smile on its face. It is no wonder that many audiences were in tears.

A similar argument exists over the Seventh Symphony (1941). The 'Leningrad' became Shostakovich's most popular Symphony. It was finished when Leningrad was under siege, and when the composer was, for a while, a voluntary fire-fighter. Throughout the music, growing insistently and ominously is a theme which was generally considered to be representative of Hitler, the symphony was therefore happily promoted by the Stalinist authorities and was promoted across the world as an example of the spirit of Soviet resistance to the Nazis. But Shostakovich later made a crucial point, the symphony had been planned before the Nazi invasion, as he explained to Volkov, "I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme."

Despite the success of the Seventh Symphony Shostakovich fell from favour again, largely due to his anti-climatic Ninth Symphony which failed to be the rousing celebration of Stalin's war time achievements that was expected from the composer. Again a sinister menace is present behind superficially cheerful melodies.

In 1948 Shostakovich was again accused of modernism and formalism, and had to retreat into relatively innocuous compositions.

With the death of Stalin in 1953 and a certain amount of liberalisation following Kruschev's famous 1956 speech, Shostakovich could risk more daring compositions. His Thirteenth Symphony (1962), for example, was ostensibly about the Nazi massacre of Jews, but since Stalin's anti-Semitic policies were being exposed, it was widely understood to be a metaphor for the 1930's and 40's in Russia.

Shostakovich never became an open opponent of the system, much to the chagrin of younger composers and musicians who felt from his music, that he had the soul of a rebel. But the traumatic experience of having barely survived the purges had deeply marked the composer. In later life he moved away from programmatic works, to introspective, bleak studies. He died in 1975.

Because of the necessity of concealment, the legacy and interpretation of the composer has been much fought over, usually in Cold War terms, either for or against the Soviet system. But it is too constricting to try to place Shostakovich on such a two-dimensional political scale. Rather, it seems more insightful to imagine the young man, genuinely enthusiastic in Russia's great revolutionary years, despite all the hardships, being shocked and demoralised by the rise of Stalin and the lack of principle among those around him. Having teetered on the brink of extinction, the composer fought back the only way he could, by ingeniously using his brilliant compositional skills to write in such as way as to deceive the cultural censors but retain a profoundly heart-aching core to his music that in no way can be considered patriotic to Soviet Russia.

One thing to listen for in Shostakovich's music is his four-note musical monogram:

------||-------------- /-\---------------------+
      /       / \   b |   |                   ||
-----/|------|--------|\_/---- /-\------------+|
    / |      |\_/     |       |   |    / \    ||
   | /|\     |        |       |       |\_/    ||
    \ | /    |                |       |       ||
      |                               |

In abc notation:

T:DSCH monogram
C:Dmitri Shostakovich
d _e c B|]

How do you get from "Dmitri Shostakovich" to the sequence of notes above?

  • In the Cyrillic alphabet, Shotakovich's initials are (Unicode: Д.Ш.):
                 /\      |   |   |
                /  \     |   |   |
               /    \    |   |   |
             -+------+-  |___|___|
  • If you transliterate that into the Roman alphabet using German spelling, you get D. Sch. (as in Dmitri Schostakowitsch).
  • In the German system of pitch names, Es (S) refers to what is called E-flat in English, and H refers to English B-natural. (German B is English B-flat.)
  • So, D S C H = D E-flat C B.

Shostakovich's monogram is reminiscent of J. S. Bach's musical signature B A C H =B-flat A C B-natural. Good places to listen for the D S C H theme are in movements 3 and 4 of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony (opus 93), in the second movement of his first Violin Concerto (opus 99), and in the Eighth String Quartet (thanks to freshmint for pointing out this last example).

And, for a rather different use of the same motif, see spiregrain's excellent writeup on Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb.

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