Monday, September 28, 2009

For the Love of Shostakovich

My latest blog installment features my personal favorite composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович) or as many of my fellow musicians affectionately call him, “Shosty”.

Born September of 1906 in Saint Petersburg, Shostakovich was the son of two Siberia natives (Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich and Sofiya Vasilievna Kokoulina). He began piano lessons with his mother at age eight and was soon recognized as a child prodigy in both piano and composition. In 1919 he began studying at the Petrograd Conservatory with the famous composer Alexander Glazunov and in 1926 he premiered his Symphony No.1 at the ripe age of 19. Although he was gifted in performance, many critics argued that he was too mechanical thus Shostakovich turned to composition as his primary focus.

Although the composer began his career as highly respected by the Soviet Union, things went infamously down hill when he wrote is opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1936), later titled “Katerina Izmailova”. Riddled with dissonance (imagine vulgar, ear straining sounds) as well as themes of murder and adultery, the Stalinist bureaucracy did not take kindly to the smashing of traditions that had been so popular in the 1920's. In fact Stalin historically stormed out of the hall of the opening performance! Contrary to the musical revolution that had begun in Russia during the early 20th century, Stalin insisted that art be conformist and closely monitored (allegedly to put an end to imperialistic capitalist formalism). Instead of praise, Shostakovich's experimentation with the latest in musical concepts earned his work the label of “muddle instead of music”. Furthermore, such blatant criticism during the days of Stalin could mean grave consequences for the composer including eviction from his home, loss of patronage (and commission for new works), jail time, and/or death! Driven by fear, Shostakovich resigned himself too a safer style starting with his Symphony No. 5 completed in 1937. Although there are musicologists who argue over a series of “hidden messages” within the symphony, it is blatantly obvious too many who have studied this work that there is a very real sense of tense restraint.

Perhaps one of the most tragic of events in music history include that of the Central Committee Meeting of the Communist Party during Feudatory 1948. After composing the “Resolution” or list of grievances with many of the famous composers of the time, the composers were one by one forced to rise and apologize for their formalist crimes to society. Among these composers was, of course, Shostakovich who was obligated to profess that he was “deeply grateful for the criticism contained in the resolution”and that he “would be more determined to work on the musical depiction of the images of the heroic soviet people.” So great was his humiliation that he was later involved in a letter to Stalin himself, thanking the dictator for the harsh judgment. It was not until 1958 when the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, encouraged a party decree that dismissed the charges against the accused composers and once again Shostakovich was free too be a hero of Soviet music (too bad he fell back into discord again when Khrushchev decided his Symphony 13 was of distasteful subject matter in 1962).

A bitter and defeated man, Shostakovich died in Moscow on August 9th, 1975. Sadly, he did not live long enough to see his works reborn in the west. Today many of his repertoire including but not limited to his symphonies and fifteen string quartets are commonly played in concert halls all over the world. Below I have included a link to a performance of the third movement from his String Quartet No. 8 (a beloved composition that many of my colleagues as well as myself prize as as one of Shosty's bests).

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