His life was a constant struggle between following his artistic passions and staying out of trouble with Soviet authorities.
Also, he made a direct impact on a besieged city during World War II.
So who was Dmitri Shostakovich, and why is he still important?
I’m glad you asked.
In this series, we’re going to take a trip back in time to discover some of the world’s best composers. We’ll learn who they were and how they shaped music as we know it today.
This is Dmitri’s story.
Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich.
A composer known especially for his brilliant symphonies.
September 12, 1906 – August 9, 1975.
His birthday is September 25th according to our modern Gregorian calendar, which was adopted in Russia during Dmitri’s childhood.
Dmitri lived during the Modern period.
He was a contemporary of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, and Aaron Copland.
Dmitri was born in St. Petersburg and attended the Petrograd Conservatory.
He taught for a time at the conservatory in Leningrad.
He eventually visited the United States and toured Europe.
In later life he settled in Moscow, where he died.
Why It Matters
Dmitri was a masterful composer. His styles ranged widely from light and peaceful to restrained and nationalistic to dark and bizarre.
He was also one of the artists who struggled the most against the artistic regulations of the Soviet Union.
During Dmitri’s lifetime, most of the world was experimenting with a little bit of everything: impressionism, expressionism, jazz, blues, minimalism, serialism, and more.
But in the USSR, life looked very different.
The Soviet government tightly controlled the culture of their people. Authorities banned jazz, avant-garde, and anything else that was seen as too formal, too decadent, or too dark.
Artists who crossed this line often paid a heavy price. Some even ended up in prison camps.
This struggle defined most of Dmitri Shostakovich’s career.
He was never one to see life through rose-colored glasses, so he often failed to produce music as optimistic and traditionally tasteful as Soviet officials demanded.
Although he was often in a state of depression, he refused to give up.
He once said, “If they cut off both hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen with my teeth.”
He is best known for his Seventh Symphony, called “Leningrad“, which he completed in 1942.
At that time, the Russian city of Leningrad was under siege by Nazi forces, and its inhabitants were demoralized and hungry.
Dmitri, who had been teaching at the Leningrad Conservatory, before evacuating, stepped up to the plate.
The Leningrad symphony depicted a great struggle that was overcome victoriously. It was airdropped behind Russian lines and smuggled into Leningrad in August of 1942.
Every remaining able-bodied musician in the city gathered together to play it. They broadcasted it all over the city by loudspeaker, making sure it could be heard in the German encampments.
This significantly boosted morale for Leningrad’s citizens, who had to endure the suffering of the siege for another two years.
For this symphonic work of patriotism, Dmitri was given the Stalin prize for the first time (he won it twice in his life).
Dmitri Shostakovich is considered to be one of the most talented composers from the Soviet Union.
His works are admired all over the world.
Other Interesting Facts
Dmitri was also a very skilled pianist, but he chose to focus on studying composition first and foremost.
He premiered his first symphony when he was only nineteen years old.
Twice in his lifetime he won the esteemed Stalin Prize. He was also awarded the Order of the October Revolution and the Order of Lenin.
He composed the soundtrack for the patriotic movie The Gadfly.
In fact, he wrote soundtracks for dozens of films. Classic FM refers to him as “the Russian John Williams”.
His Piano Trio No.2 in E minor was written in memoriam of his friend and teacher Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky, who died of a heart attack in 1944.
An internationally renowned artist, he won the gold medal from the British Royal Philharmonic Society in 1966.
He was denounced by the Soviet government several times. The last censure was due to his Thirteenth Symphony “Babi Yar“, which was a critique of Soviet anti-Semitism.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, artists were given a little bit more freedom. Dmitri responded by writing his Tenth Symphony, which was edgy and modern.
Sadly, Shostakovich’s last years were plagued by depression and suicidal tendencies.
He died from a heart attack in 1975.
Four years after Shostakovich’s death, a man named Solomon Volkov wrote a book called Testimony, a biography of the composer which he claimed was based upon his conversations with Dmitri himself.
Volkov presents Shostakovich as a secret dissident, using his music to subtly express his anti-communist leanings.
Scholars remain divided on Testimony‘s claim. The authenticity of Volkov’s account has never been proven.
This is a recording of Dmitri’s Three Fantastic Dances, which he wrote at age sixteen and dedicated to a fellow student at the Petrograd Conservatory. They are a Modern, fairly eccentric take on the popular dances of the Classical period.
And that is the story of Dmitri Shostakovich. What do you think of him?
Other Composers Featured in This Series:
Antonio Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, George F. Handel, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin, Lili Boulanger