The early 20th century marked an explosion in musical experimentation; from Francis Poulenc’s merging of modern jazz with the reserved classical traditions of past centuries to Arnold Schoenberg’s dissonant 12-tone musical expression, the western classical landscape was being terraformed in ways it had never been before. It is for this reason that a composer such as Dmitri Shostakovich fades to the back of the room, feeling far removed from the innovation of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony or Debussy’s Clair De Lune. Compared to these composers, Shostakovich's music feels somewhat unimaginative, however I believe for that reason, he is possibly one of the most inventive.
Born on the 25th of September 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Dmitri Shostakovich demonstrated his musical prowess from an incredibly young age. He began studying piano and composition at the Petrograd Conservatory at age 13, graduating in 1925 having written his First Symphony; its successful premiere in 1926 resulted in subsequent performances around Europe and the USA, launching the young Shostakovich to world fame. At this point in history, the USSR was encouraging avant-garde artistic expression as a means of developing culture in the newly born union. Shostakovich’s global popularity continued to grow with his operas The Nose and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, garnering acclaim from audiences in London, New York, and Prague however this building momentum would find itself halting sharply. On the evening of January 26th,1926, when Shostakovich was only 29, Joseph Stalin was sat in the audience of a Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk performance in Moscow. Devastatingly, the official delegation up and left before the finale, publishing an editorial titled ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ two days later. The review claimed that “singing is replaced by shrieking” and that it was a “deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds.” This killed the opera entirely, resulting in instant withdrawal from theatres and Shostakovich’s retirement from writing operas. Reviewers and critics who had previously praised Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk were signalled to retract their statements and denounce Shostakovich in alliance with the government. Stalin would proceed to enforce strict guidelines on the nature of art within the Soviet Union, a lot of which were at odds with the musical adaptations within the rest of Europe and America.
After composing, rehearsing but ultimately withdrawing his Fourth Symphony, an embarrassed Shostakovich returned to public prominence in 1937 with his Fifth Symphony.
Unlike his previous compositions, the Fifth Symphony was conservative, traditional, and exactly what the government wanted. Although undoubtedly beautiful, it is clear that Shostakovich was exercising incredible restraint in refusing the use of more progressive compositional techniques however beneath the simplified musical approach, there are elements of rebellion. The first, second and third movements remain sad and sombre with slow legato melodies and more emphasis placed on the string and woodwind sections when suddenly the brass and percussion filled fourth movement comes barrelling through in a major key, trampling the music that had come before. This sharp juxtaposition emphasises the bombastic nature of this nationalistic sound, making it feel almost unwelcome. Whilst flying under the radar of Soviet censorship, the Fifth Symphony manages to criticise the very people it is trying to please. The first few movements reflect the suffering of the Soviet people whilst the fourth portrays them being beaten into patriotism by a government that demands they be anything but miserable.
Shostakovich’s work was not only limited to operas and symphonies, he also composed a large number of chamber works too. My favourite of these is his Piano Trio No.2, a work heavily inspired by Jewish music in its final movement. The piece introduces three themes, making use of the Misheberach scale which harkens to the traditional music of Klezmer, a musical style associated with the Ashkenazi Jews. The piece is unsettling, macabre, and distressed, making use of pizzicato similar to that found in modern-day horror soundtracks and an almost abusive employment of fast repeating triple and quadruple stops on both string instruments simultaneously. The piece was written in 1944 and likely dedicated to Shostakovich's long-time friend and college Ivan Sollertinsky who had died earlier that year. At this moment in time, the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany, and it is also incredibly likely that this piece is intended to spread awareness of rumours of the Holocaust occurring in Nazi-occupied territories. Shostakovich would continue to fight anti-Semitism through his music in pieces such as his Thirteenth Symphony, setting poetry by Yevgeny Yevtushenko about the disrespect of Holocaust victims to music. During the rehearsals for this symphony’s debut, the bass soloist asked Shostakovich "Why are you writing about anti-Semitism when there isn’t any?” This angered Shostakovich immensely who shouted back “No there is, there is anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. It is an outrageous thing and we must fight it. We must shout it from the rooftops.”
Whilst it is tempting to push Shostakovich aside in favour of more freely expressing composers, I find his experience as a composer possibly the most interesting of all his contemporaries. When others were flourishing in a world willing to accept the avant-garde direction music was taking, Shostakovich was innovating in his own way. Through his music he was able to weave themes of rebellion and protest in such ways as to avoid Soviet scrutiny and for that, I regard him as the most creative composer of all time.