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Dmitri Shostakovich (25.09.1906–09.08.1975)

Dmitri Shostakovich was a Russian composer and pianist. He visited the city of Leipzig in 1950 to take part in the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of J. S. Bach's death.

  1. Biography
  2. Private Life
  3. Connection to Leipzig
  4. Reception
  5. Works
  6. Sources and Links

1. Biography

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg on September 25th, 1906. He was the second of three children of the engineer Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich and the pianist Sofia Kokulina. His mother ensured that he received piano lessons at an early age. At the age of thirteen, in 1919, he began studying piano with Leonid Nikolayev and composition with Maximilian Steinberg at the conservatory in what was then Petrograd. When Shostakovich's father died quite unexpectedly of pneumonia in 1922, the family found itself in financial straits – also due to the politically very uncertain times after the revolution. During this time, Shostakovich fell ill with tuberculosis. After treatment and a period of convalescence, he began to work as a silent film pianist in various cinemas.

In 1925, at the age of 19, he achieved such great success with his first symphony that he became known as a composer at home and abroad and was able to complete his studies at the conservatory. The symphony premiered in 1926 with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. In the years from 1928 onwards, he composed the operas The Nose and Lady Macbeth, with which he enjoyed enormous success. Both the audience and the critics were enthusiastic and his fame increased.

Two years and 200 performances later, Stalin attended the opera Lady Macbeth. He is said to have left the performance early. A few days later, the devastating article Muddle instead of Music appeared in Pravda about his work. All performances were immediately cancelled. At the time, Shostakovich was on a concert tour in the north of the country. In the political climate of the time, the situation meant that he was in constant fear of political persecution and arrest by the USSR Ministry of the Interior. Several interrogations by the secret service followed.

The political pressure led him to interrupt work on his 4th Symphony. In 1937, he began composing his moderate 5th Symphony instead. The premiere was again successful, symbolising Shostakovich's supposed commitment to Soviet cultural policy. Officially, it was presented as his return to Soviet culture, and the finale of the symphony as a triumphal march of the regime. The composer himself is said to have opened up a second level of interpretation in his memoirs - authenticity unproven - which interprets the last movement of the 5th Symphony as a death march whose jubilation was forced under threats. In the same year, he was appointed to the professorship of composition at the Leningrad Conservatory.

When the siege of Leningrad began in October 1941, Shostakovich and his family were evacuated to Moscow, then to Kuibyshev. The family returned to Moscow in 1943. After the end of the war, the discussion about modern music flared up again and with it the accusations of formalism against Shostakovich. He lost all his posts – the composer had been appointed chairman of the Leningrad Composers' Union in 1947 – as a result of which the family got into financial difficulties.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Shostakovich gradually succeeded in restoring his reputation as a composer. He stood up for composers who, like him, had suffered under the political system. For example, his protégé of many years, Mieczysław Weinberg, described as one of the "little Shostakoviches", had also come into conflict with the regime because of formalist tendencies in his works. Shostakovich wrote a letter involving great risk for himself, demanding Weinberg’s release from prison. In 1958, he and other Soviet composers were rehabilitated by a Party resolution. His admission to the party followed. He became secretary of the Union of Composers of the USSR. A short time later, at the invitation of the East German government, he travelled to the vicinity of Dresden to compose the music for the film Five Days, Five Nights. After his return, he was able to resume his teaching activities. As a professor at the Leningrad and Moscow Conservatories, he taught important contemporary composers.

Serious illness and several hospital stays finally led to a heart attack, from which Shostakovich died on August 9th, 1975. After a life of constant anxiety, his mental state must have been very unstable in his last years. Shostakovich was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

2. Private Life

After Shostakovich had finished his second symphony, he met the two Varzar sisters in 1927. They were the daughters of a very well-known lawyer. Since he was very attracted to one of the two sisters, Nina, Shostakovich spent a lot of time with the Varzar family. However, the family was initially opposed to their marriage, as Nina had not yet completed her studies in mathematics and physics. But the couple finally married on May 13th, 1932. A few months earlier there had already been a wedding date, but Shostakovich did not turn up – he had got cold feet, which plunged him into a deep crisis, and he remained missing for a few days.

The couple had two children: daughter Galina and son Maxim. Nina Varzar died of cancer after a short stay in hospital in 1955. Two years later, Shostakovich married Margarita Andreyevna Kainova, a Komsomol activist and teacher. The marriage was not a happy one and the couple divorced just three years later. By this time, he already knew Irina Antonovna Supinskaya, a publisher, whom he married in 1962. She was only one year older than his daughter Galina.

3. Connection to Leipzig

Music by Shostakovich was heard for the first time in the Gewandhaus in 1929: Bruno Walter conducted his 1st Symphony on November 14th.

Shostakovich himself came to Leipzig in 1950. He attended the celebrations for the 200th anniversary of Bach's death. The political situation was difficult for him at the time, because he had come to Leipzig as a representative of Soviet music. Hans Meyer remembers his "mask of the reluctantly officiating state guest"1, which he only rarely dropped – once, when he heard Bach's Mass in B minor in the St. Thomas’ Church. Inspired by this event, the 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87 were written during this time.

More recent compositions were also played often and with pleasure in the Gewandhaus. In September 1976, a Beethoven-Shostakovich cycle began, extending over 2 years, with a total of 20 concerts. In addition to the symphonies, other important instrumental works were also played. The occasion was Beethoven's 150th and Shostakovich's 70th birthday. Kurt Masur emphasised the desire to "connect the great musical past with the music of our epoch..."2. Shostakovich's works occupied a large part of the Gewandhaus concert programmes between 1950 and 1968. Statistics compiled in 1968 show that works by the composer were performed 20 times, which corresponds to as much as 1.6% of the total programme.

1  Meyer, Hans: Gelebte Musik. Erinnerungen, Suhrkamp 1999, p. 217.

2  Böhm, Claudius & Staps, Sven-W.: 250 Jahre Leipziger Stadt- und Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig 1993, p. 241.

4. Reception

The reception of Shostakovich's works has always been strongly connected with non-musical and ideological aspects. The perception of his music has always existed in an area of conflict between his relationship to the Soviet regime and his artistic veracity. The first two symphonies were great successes with both critics and the public and brought him public attention and recognition. But already in his 2nd symphony, To October (1927), the conflict between Shostakovich as a composer loyal to the regime, as he was received especially by Western contemporaries – he was just 21 years old – and the avant-garde Shostakovich, who fell out of favour with Stalin through works such as The Nose (1930), becomes apparent. Despite the restraint of many works that would certainly have been subject to accusations of formalism, and the publication of moderate works such as the 5th Symphony, Shostakovich was politically persecuted and pressured. In contrast, he was appointed professor at the Leningrad Conservatory, elected chairman of the Leningrad Composers' Union, and even awarded a Stalin Prize in 1941 for his Piano Quintet and another for film music. After Stalin's death, he gradually regained public recognition, both in the Soviet Union and abroad, and was finally officially rehabilitated. Honours followed, such as the Finnish Wihuri Sibelius Prize and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford.


5. Works

Stage works

Operas, such as      

- Nos (The Nose), op. 15 – Opera in three acts (10 scenes), premiere 1930

- Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uyezda (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk), op. 29 – Opera in four acts (9 scenes), premiere 1934

- Katarina Izmailova, new version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, op. 114, premiere 1963

Ballets, such as                         

- Zolotoi vek (The Golden Age), op. 22 – Ballet in three acts, premiere 1930

- Bolt (The Bolt) op. 27 – Ballet in three acts, premiere 1931

- Svetly ruchey (The Bright Stream), op. 39 – Ballet in three acts (four scenes), premiere 1935

1 Operetta:                           

- Moscow, Cheryomushki, op. 105 – Operetta in 3 acts, premiere 1959

Orchestral works

- 15 symphonies

Concertos, such as           

- Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor op. 77 (1947/48)

- Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major op. 102 (1957)

- Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major op. 107 (1959)

Suites, such as                           

- Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1, without op. (1934)

- Suite for Variety Orchestra (c. 1955)

Also marches and other instrumental pieces.

Film music (selection)

- The New Babylon op. 18 (1929)

- The Man with the Gun op. 53 (1938)

- The Unforgettable Year 1919 op. 89 (1951)

- Five Days, Five Nights op. 111 (1961)

Chamber Music

- 15 string quartets

- 2 piano trios

- 1 string quintet

Also, sonatas etc.

Piano Works, such as

- Preludes

- Concertino for Two Pianos op. 94 (1953)

Also dances, a suite, etc.

Vocal Music

- Numerous works for voice and piano

- Works for voice and orchestra

- Works for choir and orchestra, including the 2nd, 3rd, and 13th Symphonies

- 3 works for choir a cappella

Audio samples

Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1, without op. (1934)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kz90iTlVPd0

String Quartet No. 8, op. 111 (1960)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wokx576v5Y0

7th Symphony in C major, op. 60 Leningrad Symphony (1941)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GB3zR_X25UU


6. Sources and Links

- Böhm, Claudius & Staps, Sven-W.: 250 Jahre Leipziger Stadt- und Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig 1993.

- Feuchtner, Bernd: Dimitri Schostakowitsch "Und Kunst geknebelt von der groben Macht" : künstlerische Identität und staatliche Repression : eine Monographie, Sendler 1986.

- Gojowy, Detlef: Art. Šostakovič, Dmitrij Dmitrievič in: MGG Online, ed. Laurenz Lütteken, Kassel, Stuttgart, New York 2016., published 2006, published online 2016, https://www.mgg-online.com/mgg/stable/11470 .

- Meyer, Hans: Gelebte Musik. Erinnerungen, Suhrkamp 1999.

- Meyer, Krzysztof: Schostakowitsch. sein Leben, sein Werk, seine Zeit, Gustav Lübbe Verlag 1995.

- https://www.schostakowitsch.de/Schostakowitsch/


Wikipedia, Dmitri Shostakovich's portrait, in the audience at the Bach Celebration of July 28, 1950. Photo by Roger & Renate Rössing.