By Gary Barton
He loved riding roller coasters (in his day in Russia they were called "American mountains") and later in life became an avid and skilled poker player. Both of these joys were to help Dmitri Shostakovich in his later travails with the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Mitya, as he was called as a child and by his closest friends in later life, was born September 25, 1906, in St Petersburg. Dmitri was not the name first given him by his parents. When the time came for him to be christened, the priest in attendance was not familiar with the name his mother and father had chosen and brusquely told them that Dmitri would be far better. A superstitious person might see in this sudden change of direction a foreshadowing of the trouble he would later encounter in life.
Shostakovich's father, Dmitri Boleslavich Shostakovich, was an engineer who worked with Dmitri Mendeleyev in the government office of weights and measures in St. Petersburg (Mendeleyev may be recalled as the first scientist to realize and structure the periodic chart of the elements that is seen in every school chemistry classroom today). His mother, née Sofya Vasilyevna Kokoulina, was a Siberian transplant to the capital. Prior to her marriage, she had been a professional pianist and Dmitri had his first lessons from her.
Young Dmitri grew up in what was the most difficult period of Russian revolutionary history. He was of frail physical stature and suffered from malnutrition (famine and disease had killed one in ten of the residents of Petrograd, as St. Petersburg was then called). Alexander Glazunov, composer and director of the Petrograd Conservatory, interceded on his behalf with the commissar of education and successfully procured increased rations for the gifted young student. (Shostakovich had entered the Conservatory at the age of 13.) As his graduation composition he turned in Symphony No. 1. It was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic in May of 1926 and ultimately became one of his most popular works. Symphony No. 2 was composed for the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Despite its rousing choral finale, it wasn't as much a success as the first had been. I found listening to it akin to viewing Revolutionary poster art.
Shostakovich followed this piece with a satirical opera, The Nose, that is based on a lighthearted story by Gogol that tells of the sudden disappearance of a nose from the face of a government functionary. A popular success, it was only the first of many of his compositions attacked as an outpouring of "bourgeois decadence." Although it was withdrawn from the stage, Shostakovich immediately wrote another satirical work, this time a ballet, The Golden Age, or The Age of Gold as it is sometimes translated. Television entertainer Ernie Kovacs used the somewhat dissonant "Polka" from the work as music for some of his comedy sketches. Symphony No. 3 ("The First of May") followed, but was critically dismissed as "nothing more than a formal gesture of proletarian solidarity." Actually, the first movements are quite finely written, but when the chorus begins the text it becomes, to me at least, empty rhetoric. Shostakovich himself is said to have found the verses "quite disgusting."
The composer's real troubles began with the opera, Lady Macbeth of the District of Mtzensk. This work was a popular success and ran for two years. It was even performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Then Stalin came to see it in Moscow and left after the third act in a state of controlled agitation. The control was released in an unsigned vitriolic attack in Pravda entitled "Muddle Instead of Music" that appeared in January of 1936. This vicious criticism of Shostakovich had consequences that were felt by all who were involved in Soviet musical life. It was not merely a bad review; it could easily mean a death sentence. Waves of panic rippled through the musical community. In the words of Alisa Maximovna Shebalin, wife of composer Vissarion Shebalin, quoted by Elizabeth Wilson in her fascinating book Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (Princeton University: 1994): "A 'dispute' or 'discussion' was organized in Moscow at the House of Writers where a large number of Moscow composers gathered. All the old RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) activists were there, their teeth bared, ready for a killing. Shostakovich was criticized, purged, disciplined and scolded by one and all on every count. Each person who spoke felt it his duty to express sentiments similar to those printed in the Pravda articles. Only Shebalin maintained silence throughout the meeting. But then he too was asked to speak. It was hardly a request but a demand; he refused all the same. A short while elapsed and again it was 'suggested' that he should take the stand. Vissarion then got up, but, remaining where he was without going up to the podium, he announced in a loud and clear voice for all to hear: 'I consider that Shostakovich is the greatest genius amongst composers of this epoch.' And with this statement he sat down. After this Shebalin was also persecuted; his music was no longer played or printed and he was deprived of all material means of earning a living. For a certain time we lived in great poverty, and it wasn't until the war started that things started changing for the better."
Shostakovich, now in his thirties and the father of two children, dealt with all of this in the only way he knew; he kept on composing. However, he withdrew his Symphony No. 4, already in rehearsal (he was informed that if he did not its performances and rehearsals would all be cancelled anyway). This work would remain unheard for 25 years. Symphony No. 5 has been referred to as having an unprinted title, "An Artist's Reply to Just Criticism." Surely, these cannot have been the actual words of Shostakovich.
Ms. Wilson's states that with this work Shostakovich was declared to be free of his formalist flaws. He glided through Symphony No. 6, but Symphony No. 7 "Leningrad," written during the "900 Days" that Germany assaulted that city with a loss of over a million lives, took him again to the top of his roller coaster career. He was actually evacuated to safer territory about the time he was working on the last movement. When he wasn't composing, he was busy fighting fires caused by the German artillery and bombing raids. Shostakovich was pictured on the cover of Time magazine wearing a Russian fireman's helmet.
Shostakovich now began his poker game with the authorities, writing the heroic works, Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 and hiding a little something in Symphony No. 10. In Testimony: the Memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich, editor Solomon Volkov claims that Shostakovich revealed the overpowering second movement of this last work to be a representation of the temper and character of Josef Stalin himself, and he seems to be in a blind drunken rage. Of Symphony No. 11 "In the Year 1905," the critic Alfred Frankenstein wrote, "the symphony as a whole is one of the most eloquent, moving and genuinely tragic to be produced in modern times." Listening to the work while following the events depicted in four mural-like movements in the party line program, which is based on historical fact, can be a breathtaking experience. Never have stillness and cold been evoked as exquisitely as in the first movement, entitled "The Palace Square."
Isaak Glikman corresponded with Shostakovich for over 30 years. He wrote, "During the 1930's it was Shostakovich's lot to undergo extremely hard experiences, and I was filled with admiration for his bearing. It somehow reminded me of the … heroes of his symphonies and chamber works; their propensity for mournful contemplation in conjunction with an indestructible force of spirit."
Symphony No. 13 "Babi Yar" for bass solo, male chorus and orchestra is a setting of texts by Yevtushenko, and is certainly a critique of Stalinist society. "Babi Yar is the name of a ravine outside the Ukrainian City of Kiev which was the scene of a Nazi massacre of over 100,000 men, women and children in 1941. The poem amounts to a passionate outcry against anti-Semitism. It had already been published, but changes were demanded to reflect that Russians and Ukrainians lie with Jews in the same earth. The meaning remained clear despite the changes.
I urge you to begin your study of this composer by listening to the early symphonies, the two piano concertos (Shostakovich was by all reports an astonishing virtuoso at the keyboard). Then do some reading, dipping into the two books I've already mentioned as well as what is perhaps the most authoritative biography, Shostakovich: A Life by Laurel E. Fay, published by Oxford University Press in 2000.
The Essential Shostakovich
There are many recordings of Shostakovich's symphonies. For Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, I like London/Decca 425063, which contains a performance by the London Philharmonic led by Bernard Haitink. Try London/Decca 425064 (again Haitink) for Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 10. I choose Neeme Järvi's performance with the Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos 8640) of the suppressed Symphony No. 4.
The historic recording of Symphony No. 5 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is a best buy on Sony 61841. It contains Symphony No. 9 as well. Delos 3246 presents Symphony No. 5 along with the gorgeous Piano Concerto No. 2 (with a second movement that will break your heart; jazz pianist Bill Evans even recorded it). Andrew Litton is the conductor/piano soloist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Symphony No. 7 "Leningrad" is now available on an audiophile Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc in Surround Sound on Philips 470623 with Valery Gergiev leading a live performance by the Kirov Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. The accompanying booklet is excellent. There is also a Haitink London Philharmonic recording on London/Decca 425068 that is excellent, although it doesn't hold a candle to the Gergiev version. I like Haitink again for Symphony No. 8 (London/Decca 425071).
The hands-down winner for Symphony No. 11 is the 1958 recording by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting. It still gives me the chills (EMI 165206). Neeme Järvi also presents Symphony No. 11, "The Year 1905" with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon Imports 459415. Rounding it out for this work is another Haitink outing with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on London/Decca 425072.
I recommend London/Decca 425073 for Symphony No. 13. On it, Bernard Haitink conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The bass soloist is Marius Rintzler. Symphony No. 14 is in 11 movements, each a setting of a poem about death. London/Decca 425074 features Julia Varady, soprano and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bass, again with Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Denon 78821 contains an interesting performance with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Eliahu Inbal. Finally, although I've left out Symphonies Nos. 6 and 12, is the enigmatic Symphony No. 15 with its machine-like whirrings, quotations from Rossini's William Tell, the fate theme from Wagner's Tannhauser and one really humongous crescendo. Haitink does a fine version with the London Philharmonic on London/Decca 425069. There is also an excellent but difficult to find performance on the ICONE label (ICN-9408) with Kiril Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic.
For the inner life of Shostakovich, turn to the complete String Quartets (Nos.1-15) in a very reasonably priced boxed set of six CDs. The highly acclaimed performances are by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet on London/Decca 455776.
If you've got the SACD decoding system for multi channel playback, a must is Hilary Hahn playing the Concerto for Violin No. 1 with the Oslo Philharmonic, Marek Janowski conducting, on Sony 89921.
I purchased and am happy with a recording of Heinrich Schiff playing the Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 on London/Decca 201402 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted authoritatively by Shostakovich's son, Maxim.
Both of the piano concertos are available on Sony 60677 with Yefim Bronfman, piano, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. For good measure, the Quintet in g for Piano and Strings brings together Bronfman with the Juilliard String Quartet.
Finally, for personal and sentimental reasons, I recommend the superb performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 by John Ogdon, piano, and the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Lawrence Foster (EMI 74991). Ogdon won first prize jointly with Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962. His career was interrupted by the onset of mental illness in the mid 70's.
Shostakovich's music can be hard to emotionally bear at times, but I think no other composer of the last century so perfectly captured the state of humankind during his lifetime and foreshadowed what our future might be. Go as far as you can, then give it a rest and return. It is a lifetime of listening and understanding more and more deeply life's riddles that awaits those who choose to follow the trail blazed by this magnificent man.