Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich-Dmitri-103was probably the most brilliantly inventive of all Soviet composers – and the most hotly debated. Yet who was the real Shostakovich? Was he the composer of the Piano Concerto No.2’s delectable slow movement? Or the Symphony No.10’s biting cynicism? Or the gently tuneful episodes of The Gadfly film music? Or the bleak despair of the String Quartet No.15? He was all these things, of course, but how can the listener make any sense of it all? Shostakovich’s chameleon-like creative personality makes him impossible to tie down. Take his knockabout Piano Concerto No.1, which throws virtually everything into the stylistic melting pot – vaudeville, jazz, music hall, honky-tonk, passing references to Beethoven, Haydn and Mahler, and a side-splitting finale reminiscent of Milhaud slapstick thrown in for good measure. Yet although one can never be sure just what he is going to do next, there is one immutable fact about his music – it could only be by Shostakovich.

Two years after the successful 1934 premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the work was savaged in Pravda, where an article title „Muddle Instead of Music” deplored Lady Macbeth for its „Bedlam of noise quacks, grunts, growls and suffocates itself in an orgy of depravity”. The State made it clear that „Soviet art can have no other aim than the interest of the people and the state” and, while Shostakovich sympathised in part with the vague dictates, he was appalled by the extremes to which the state was willing to go. When you have a country of over 180 million people, speaking 108 different languages, it is hard to find a common musical ground, but Shostakovich was relentlessly bullied for his deviations from the ill-defined path of Socialist Realism. From 1938 until 1955 Shostakovich devoted himself chiefly to symphonic music, and also began his first cycle of string quartets.

Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets, but the numerical equality might be misleading – he didn’t compose his first quartet until 1938, when he had already completed his fifth symphony, and waited another six years before embarking on the second. Each of his string quartets displays an understanding of the interrelationship of string instruments that is as fine as that shown by Schubert or Beethoven, and as with Beethoven quartets these pieces are a vehicle for the composer’s most intimate utterances. With in Shostakovich’s quartets who hear marvellously written melodic lines which stand out and feel obvious of true feelings, a lot of his idea’s and lines came from Jewish folkloric music. Especially his 4th quartet written in 1949, inspired by the death of his close friend Venyamin Fleishmann the piece is a bleak creation that offers no sense of hope or reconciliation, the influence of Eastern folk is present though out the work. Moral reasons were not the only ones why Shostakovich decided to use Jewish motifs in his compositions. It was also the charm of Jewish folklore whose richness and uniqueness took possession of the composer’s artistic creativeness. Shostakovich was particularly interested in Jewish folklore as a special musical device. There exists an opinion, that Shostakovich’s interest in using Jewish folklore for composition, had been initiated by a biographical event. During the war in 1943, one of the most talented students of Shostakovich, Venyamin Fleishmann died – whose opera Rotschild’s Violin was based on Jewish themes. Shostakovich finished and arranged this opera, which was first of all for him, a strict “score” connection with the Jewish idiom, especially with Jewish modes. Shostakovich explored his knowledge about Jewish folklore for dozens of years, as late as 1970 he studied carefully the Anthology of Jewish Folk-song, because this music was a special kind of inspiration for him. He could listen endlessly to Jewish melodies in regard to the variety of their subtle shades, which, as he said, can sound happy and tragic at the same time. This was after all, what made this music unusual and unique for him.

In 1943, following his time with other evacuated artists further east in Kuibyshev, he settled in Moscow, where he was appointed a professor of composition at the Conservatory. Even though he toed the party line with humiliating obedience, Shostakovich still fell foul of the government in 1948, when he and many other prominent Russian composers were singled out and denounced for „formalism” and the creation of „anti-people art”. He was dismissed from his teaching post, and subsequently composed almost nothing but film scores and patriotic music until after Stalin’s death in 1953. The last twenty years of his life were much calmer: free from state intrusion, he produced some particularly fine music, and saw the first performance of several major pieces written during the Stalinist repression. One of his most consistent pleases in later years was his friendship with Benjamin Britten and the group of Russians musicians for whom he composed, including Nikolayeva, Oistrakh and Rostropovich.

Shostakovich’s style is heterogeneous yet immediately recognisable, in his greatest works, notably the symphonies and string quartets, he encompasses exceptionally wide emotional extremes, juxtaposing tragic intensity and grotesque wit, sublimity and banality, folksy jauntiness and elemental darkness, in a manner that recalls Gustav Mahler, a composer he especially admired.

Today the music of Shostakovich is played all over the world, his music is loved over and over again. Young orchestras from all around aspire to such greatness and feel in playing such music they gain a very close insight to the character and thoughts of one of the world’s finest composers.