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Timeline: Dmitri Shostakovich

U.S. Public Domain
This is a photograph of three giants of 20th century Russian music captured together. From the left: Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian.

Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich saw himself a Soviet man first and a composer second. He felt that it was his duty to compose music for his countrymen that reflected the heart of the Soviet ideal. He left behind 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets that stand as some of the most influential works of the 20th century.

Dmitri’s mother was a professional pianist and she began to give him piano lessons at the age of nine. By the time he was 13 he was accepted in the Petrograd Conservatory, where he studied under the watchful eye of Alexander Glazunov. During his schooling, Shostakovich helped to support his family by playing the piano for films at the cinema. 

Credit U.S. Public Domain
A young and serious Dmitri Shostakovich as a student in 1925. During his early years, Shostakovich supported his family by playing piano during films.

He found early success as a pianist and composer, competing in the Chopin Contest in Warsaw and premiering his graduation piece, "1st Symphony". Shostakovich also excelled in music written for the stage with works for opera, ballet, film and plays.

However, he began to receive criticism early in his career. His music deviated from the traditional Russian masters and embraced the dissonance coming from Western Europe. In 1936, an article in the Russian magazine Pravada called his music “Chaos… coarse and vulgar.” The Union of Soviet Composers denounced “modernism” especially in the works of Shostakovich. His response was in the form of the "5th Symphony", a return to tradition that once again endeared him to the Soviet government and its people.

When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Dmitri was trapped in Leningrad at the beginning of its long siege. There he began to compose his "7th Symphony" dedicated to that city and its people. This work spread around the world as a global declaration against Nazism. In the next year, it was performed 62 times in the United States alone.

After the war, Shostakovich, along with Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, faced the Zhdanov decree, which denounced his music yet again. This time Shostakovich made a full apology for not following the will and taste of the people and vowed to compose as the party decreed. After Stalin’s and Prokofiev’s death in 1953, Dmitri continued to tow the party line, denouncing the avant grade and dedicating the majority of his work to the Soviet ideal.

In the next decade his health began to fail as he faced heart disease and arthritis. Yet, he continued to compose. He declared that his "14th Symphony" was an outright “protest against death." However, death claimed him in 1973. He was 68 years old.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Listen through the Timeline on our new web app.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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