Dmitry Shostakovich


20th Century

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin created the communist Soviet Union. Its government did all it could to control what the Soviet people did, and that included the kind of music its composers wrote. This bossing-about is called authoritarianism. It reached a peak under the later leader, the dictator Stalin. Composers did what they were told or ended up in prison, or worse. The first great composer to emerge in this communist state was Dmitry Shostakovich, and he lived in fear of what the government might do to him.

He wrote his First Symphony aged 19. It was admired and for a few years he flourished, writing spiky, modern music. Then, in 1936, Stalin went to see Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. He disliked it. It wasn’t tuneful enough or optimistic. Shostakovich, terrified of what Stalin might do, wrote his Fifth Symphony – a more friendly work. Stalin liked it and Shostakovich survived.

In 1948 he got into trouble again. His music was judged too academic and sophisticated: it wasn’t written for the people. So again he responded by shutting off a part of his musical mind and producing what the authorities wanted: simpler works, easy to listen to. Stalin died in 1953 and Shostakovich no longer feared death, but the communist Soviet Union was still a hard place for a creative person. An artist should feel free, but he never did.

It is difficult to describe Shostakovich’s music because he used so many styles: Bach, Beethoven, Russian folksong, popular music, jazz… He was a clever musical magpie who found food in all sorts of places. It is also hard to tell how much his music was affected by political pressure and fear. He composed 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, operas, film and chamber music. Much of it is rhythmic; even more of it is sad. It is the music of a depressed and nervous man, troubled with ill health, who smoked heavily and drank a lot of vodka. We can never know how much he suffered, but we can tell that he was a great musician.

Dmitry Shostakovitch, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Try some tracks by Shostakovich…

Jazz Suite No. 2 (Suite for Stage Variety Orchestra): Waltz No. 2

This popular waltz from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 2 is a mixture of fun and sinister. The score of this suite was found only many years after Shostakovich’s death.

Performers: Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky

Taken from Naxos 8.555949

Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93: II. Allegro

Shostakovich knew how to use a full orchestra to create unbelievable drama. Turn up the volume and get ready for this!

Performers: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko

Taken from Naxos 8.572396

24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87: Prelude No. 1 in C major

For his 24 Preludes and Fugues Shostakovich was inspired by J.S. Bach, whose 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier had been composed over 200 years earlier and remain today a brilliant beacon of keyboard writing. In this calm piece, nice harmonies are flavoured with the odd twist you don’t expect.

Performers: Konstantin Scherbakov, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554745-46

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 How many symphonies did Shostakovich write?

a. 5
b. 15
c. 10

 Shostakovich was good at playing one particular instrument. Which was it?

a. The piano
b. The violin
c. The bagpipes

 One of Shostakovich’s greatest works, his 24 Preludes and Fugues, was inspired by which great composer?

a. Beethoven
b. W.A. Mozart
c. J.S. Bach

 For much of Shostakovich’s life, he lived in fear of whom?

a. His wife
b. Stalin
c. Lenin

 Which habit in the end killed Shostakovich?

a. Smoking
b. Playing football
c. Bungee-jumping

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Shostakovich sent regular cards to himself to make sure that the postal service was working properly.
  2. ‘DSCH’ was Shostakovich’s signature in music: the notes D, E flat (pronounced ‘Es’ in German), C and B natural (H in German) make a motif, or little phrase, that is recognizable. His name is sometimes spelt ‘Schostakovich’ so the letters are part of his name: Dmitry Schostakovich. That group of notes is buried in a lot of his music.
  3. Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets and the music for 36 films.
  4. Shostakovich was a football referee in his spare time – when he had any!
  5. The English composer Benjamin Britten was a good friend of Shostakovich.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Works

Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10

Shostakovich was still a teenager (just!) when he wrote his First Symphony in 1924–5. Wit, drama, tragedy… the work contains many of Shostakovich’s hallmarks. It proved immediately popular and made Shostakovich’s reputation. It actually incorporates many fragments Shostakovich had written as a child.

Performers: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko

Taken from Naxos 8.572396

Symphony No. 5 in in D minor, Op. 47

Shostakovich wrote this symphony in 1937 soon after the Soviet authorities – who controlled even the kind of music people were to listen to – had attacked him for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Stalin didn’t understand the opera and didn’t like it. So Shostakovich wrote this, and amazingly he managed to please everyone: authorities, audience, and music critics. It’s still a popular symphony. There is huge energy in it. We don’t know how much of its style – its sense of loud rejoicing (listen to the last movement!) – is because this is what he was ordered to produce. But it doesn’t really matter: he was such a clever composer that what he wrote is still original and interesting. It is gripping right from the start – listen to the spiky cellos leaping up, answered by the equally spiky violins.

Performers: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko

Taken from Naxos 8.572167

Symphony No. 7

The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Their siege of the city of Leningrad lasted over two years, and over a million people died. Shostakovich was there when it began. He wrote three movements of this Symphony No. 7 before he and his family decided to get out. People were starving to death, in freezing temperatures. Dead bodies were lying in the snow-covered streets. This symphony expresses the struggle – and a massive determination to overcome this terrible time. Shostakovich wrote ‘To the City of Leningrad’ on the score, and the work became a strong symbol of resistance to Nazi power. It was performed first in Moscow, but amazingly there was also a performance in Leningrad itself during the siege. The orchestra had barely survived. Many had died. Posters advertised for musicians; brass players were brought back from war. The occasion meant everything. The performance was broadcast over loudspeakers, to show the Nazis that there was strength in the city not to be beaten. It’s a long and varied symphony. Listen at 6.50 in movement 1 and keep listening: there is a very quiet snare drum with an insistent rhythm, and then a pizzicato (plucked) tune above it. This carries on and on, the snare drum still insisting, getting louder and louder. It is known as the ‘invasion’ theme – i.e. the invasion of the Nazis.

Performers: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko

Taken from Naxos 8.573057

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102

Shostakovich wrote this Piano Concerto for his son Maxim to play. It was a 19th birthday present. There is a fantastic energy in the whole thing, with the piano scampering over a rhythmic orchestra. A single bassoon starts things off by bouncing in at the beginning, introducing cheerful, characterful music. The slow middle movement is simple yet somehow so beautiful it can make you cry. It leads straight into a final movement where the piano part starts to run and jump around. This is a concerto that the pianist can have fun performing!

Performers: Michael Houston, piano; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Christopher Lyndon-Gee

Taken from Naxos 8.554677

Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107

This was written in 1959 for the great cellist – and Shostakovich’s friend – Mstislav Rostropovich. He memorised the whole thing in four days! You can hear a clear theme at the start: four notes from the cello. Three are short and the fourth one is long. These keep coming back, either in the cello part or in the orchestra. See how many times you can spot them!

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550813

Piano Works

24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 (excerpts)

After attending a festival in Leipzig celebrating J.S. Bach, Shostakovich decided to write 24 Preludes and Fugues in all the keys. Bach wrote two sets of these for his The Well-Tempered Clavier, which remains a beacon of brilliant keyboard writing. Shostakovich even quotes bits of Bach’s, but while the style is similarly elegant and concentrated, the harmonies are very different. This was over 200 years later, and music had moved on. So, if we imagine the music to be like food, we get a more tangy flavour from Shostakovich’s! There are more ‘chromatic’ notes – notes that aren’t part of whichever key the piece is in. The whole set is perfectly carved. Here is a selection.

Performers: Konstantin Scherbakov, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554745-46

24 Preludes, Op. 34 (extracts)

Shostakovich’s homage to Chopin, who also wrote 24 preludes for piano, was written in 1932–3. A selection of these miniatures is given here. A wide variety of moods is covered.

Performers: Konstantin Sherbakov, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555781

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B minor, Op. 61

Shostakovich wrote the second of his two piano sonatas in 1943 during the height of the Second World War and the Siege of Leningrad. It seems quite private – as if the composer is sitting at the piano, sorting out his thoughts about the war as he plays the keys.

Performers: Konstantin Scherbakov, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570092

Chamber Music

Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67

Shostakovich dedicated this Piano Trio to the memory of a friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died suddenly of a heart attack. They had been friends for over 20 years. The very beginning does seem to mourn – all three instruments (violin, cello and piano) have long slow notes. But around 2.40, the piano gets a melody that starts to move faster, with the string instruments sounding more buoyant. This mood continues. In the second movement, it’s as if the instruments are each saying ‘Listen to me! No, to me!’ Then, after about a minute and half, it becomes like a folk dance. It’s back to a mournful style for the Largo, before a ‘dance of death’ in the final movement, using a Jewish melody. Shostakovich was fascinated by Jewish music, and appalled by Jewish suffering. It ends mournfully and quietly.

Performers: Stockholm Arts Trio

Taken from Naxos 8.553297

Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57

One of Shostakovich’s best-known chamber works, this is a yearning, rich, expressive piano quintet – for piano plus string quartet (two violins, viola and cello). He wrote it in 1940 for his favourite quartet, the Beethoven Quartet: he played the piano with them for the successful premiere at the Moscow Conservatory.

Performers: Vermeer Quartet; Boris Berman, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554830

String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 is a dark masterpiece. He wrote it in 1960 during a visit to Dresden, which during the war had been badly bombed. Appalled by what he saw, he dedicated the quartet to ‘the victims of fascism and war’. He said that it brought tears to his eyes as he wrote it. He had also recently, under pressure, signed up as a member of the Communist Party, and he was not in good health. So it was a terribly unhappy time for him. The beginning uses his four-note musical DSCH signature (D, E flat, C, B natural), which appears in various places. The whole work is wrapped in sadness and emptiness.

Performers: Éder Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550973

Viola Sonata in C major, Op. 147

This is Shostakovich’s final work, for viola and piano. It is a bleak, death-obsessed work. But it is also still and atmospheric. The final movement is a reflection on Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata: it is possible to hear the sonata’s theme. The music is searching and mysterious, until the viola and piano find a wonderful peace near the end. Two weeks after completing the work, Shostakovich was dead.

Performers: Annette Bartholdy, viola; Julius Drake, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557231

Film Music

The Gadfly Suite, Op. 97a

This film, shown in 1955, is set in Italy, occupied by Austria in the 19th century. The story tells of a man who fights for freedom: he frustrates the authorities for a while before they get the better of him and he dies as a hero. The music is popular, especially the joyful ‘Folk Feast’ (track 3), where the twiddling clarinet theme kicks things off above an energetic orchestra, and the beautiful violin ‘Romance’ (track 8).

Performers: National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine; Theodore Kuchar

Taken from Naxos 8.553299

Odna (‘Alone’), Op. 26 (reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald) (extracts)

This music was written for the 1931 film, Alone. The film has a rather complicated plot about a teacher working in a remote village in Siberia. It has very little in terms of conversation or sound-effects – it was originally going to be a ‘silent film’. So the music here is even more important! Shostakovich knew how to enhance what is on the screen. Music is a powerful part of a film – it can make us feel frightened or upset or delighted by what we are watching. Just listen to how imaginative the sounds are here: very different from The Gadfly. The first track is haunting; the second has some extraordinary ‘throat singing’ – a special kind of singing found in certain parts of the world, including Tuva, Siberia; the third begins with a wood block making a kind of woodpecker sound, answered by a cymbal, then also a bass drum, before trumpets and flutes come calling – clever use of percussion instruments; and the fourth is like a slowed-down, quieter version of the third. It’s all very atmospheric. The film was popular to start with, but when politicians became stricter they stopped it being shown. Much of the music was lost, and had to be put back together like Humpty-Dumpty from an old, crackly surviving recording of the soundtrack.

Performers: Mark van Tongeren, vocals; Barbara Buchholz, soprano; Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra; Mark Fitz-Gerald

Taken from Naxos 8.558210-11