Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was the poster-child of all Soviet composers. He completed his conservatory training in St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad with what would become his world-famous 1st symphony, written at age 19 in 1926, as the icy fingers of Soviet life were tightening their grip on all aspects of Russian culture. It isn't in the scope of this post to give his complete biography, the casual reader will find the Wiki article extremely interesting. Suffice it to say that he spent his entire life as a composer under the thumb of the Soviet regime. If you are looking for more information, Laurel Fay's Shostakovich: A Life is supposed to be the best current biography of the composer. Fascinating to me is that it is so hard to write an unbiased biography of this undisputed genius - there are at least two sides of the composer that the world has to come to terms with. For most of the period of Soviet tyranny, Shostakovich was often seen as a communist lackey. His name appeared on all sorts of weird Soviet articles and decrees, he could be seen at any number of official Soviet functions and offices. His 7th symphony, written about the siege of Leningrad, rallied audiences around the Allied (including Soviet) world and earned him a Time magazine cover.
That said, there is another face of Shostakovich, one that has only really come to light since his death. In 1979 (5 years after he died) the controversial book Testimony appeared, purporting to be a confessional biography of the composer. While much of the actual content of that book has been seriously called into question, it has spawned a whole new era of Shostakovich research because it opens up the question: How did Shostakovich really feel about Stalin, the Soviet state, and composing under the scrutiny of Soviet handlers?
For years scholars have loved to dig into Shostakovich's works to find coded hate-mail to the Soviets, or to find meaning in the many strings of musical quotations and borrowings found in his music. Unfortunately, all they have to go on is A. the reports of family and friends (hardly an unbiased source) and B. the music itself.
I'm inclined to take another position altogether on Shostakovich's music. I come to this after having just read Wendy Lesser's excellent new book Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets. The book takes an autobiographical approach to understanding Shostakovich's music, not so much by way of interpreting the music, but by creating a context for the works. Using the latest research and interviews with those who knew Shostakovich, Lesser doesn't interpret the string quartets as nutty cryptograms waiting for us to solve their mysteries, but as pure pieces of music, full of musical expression even without understanding some sort of musical-code. The biographical details in the book serve mostly to give us an idea of the sort of things that would have been on the composer's mind as he wrote each quartet, and the results were extremely edifying. If you didn't know it already, you may have been surprised to learn above that Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets. He also wrote 15 symphonies, and the two bodies of work have therefore been singled out as some of the composer's most important work. Maybe that is why he wrote 15 of each, more than most composers visit either genre. They have often been compared: The symphonies are the official Shostakovich and the quartets the private Shostakovich. The Symphonies are his messages to the world and the quartets his messages to his friends. The symphonies lie, the quartets tell the truth. The time period of the symphonies spans his entire creative life; he didn't start writing string quartets until after the first official attack of his music in 1936. Whatever the case, I think the real answer is much more complex, and when it comes down to the music itself, rather irrelevant.
My personal feelings for the music of Shostakovich come to me by way of two of my more direct musical ancestors, both Soviet composers who grew up under the shadow of Shostakovich: Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina. Reading about them I have gotten a feel for what Shostakovich meant to generations of Soviet composers. Whether they hated or loved him later on, you can hear his overwhelming influence in their early works. He was both a rallying standard and a hated compromiser. Having lived in St. Petersburg and its environs for two years, I came to realize what surprises many in the west: Shostakovich, and classical music in general, were more important and familiar to the average Soviet than Copland ever was to your average Joe American. Many in St. Petersburg still weep to hear his 7th Symphony.
To me, Shostakovich is sort of like my musical uncle who had a really, really crazy life. I relate to him as someone from St. Petersburg, as a composer trying (but not always succeeding) to live up to his musical ideals, and as a man for whom personal relationships became a primary source of musical inspiration (now, that isn't to say I plan on having three wives and numerous affairs!) Above I called him my friend; I really do feel an affinity for Shostakovich. I have a strong intimation that we in fact were friends, in another time and place before our lives started less than the relatively puny span of a century apart.
Not long after Shostakovich's music was officially banned from performance in 1948, (he was being too 'formalist' and bourgeois, whatever that means) there was a big music conference in America. How could the Soviet Union be represent by less than its best composer? Shostakovich called in sick. Soon after, he received a telephone call, "Please hold, Comrade Stalin is coming on the line." Stalin asked after his health and insisted that the best doctors see the composer, (his health plan had been downgraded along with the other persecutions) and asked if he would go to the USA for the 'Congress of Peace and Culture.' I love Shostakovich's response, both brave and political: "...Of course I will go, if it is really necessary, but I am in a fairly difficult position. Over there, almost all of my symphonies are played, whereas over here they are forbidden. How am I to behave in this situation?"
You can imagine the silence on the line before Stalin answered, "How do you mean forbidden? Forbidden by whom?" Who knows if he was really ignorant, or if he was playing a really sick game. Shostakovich told him it was the State Committee for Repertoire which had placed the restrictions, and Stalin assured him it was a mistake. Sure enough, the 'official' sanction lifted shortly afterwards, although in fact Shostakovich's music was not widely performed for several more years until the tyrant was dead. Shostakovich did go to the conference, and did toe the party line there (attacking in a speech the 'decadent' music of Stravinsky).
In any case, I feel like this recent read has filled out holes in my mental portrait of Shostakovich. A complex and contradictory portrait. Perhaps most intriguingly of all is the 'what-if:' what if Shostakovich had left the Soviet Union, and continued on composing without the oppression and opposition? Would he still be regarded as one of the greats of the 20th century, or would he be an obscure post-romantic composer swallowed in the shadow of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, two other immigrants to the States whose music pulled nearly all of Western music in its wake? In other words, was the Red Hell of Shostakovich's life the molding furnace that made him great?
As a young composer beginning my own compositional career nearly a century after Dmitri did, I ask myself: how can I, a composer with almost no constraints on what kind of music I can write, find a way to make my music matter as much to somebody as the music of Shostakovich did and does to countless millions around the world? I understand that 'modern academic music' is probably necessarily doomed to relative obscurity, but this whole last year, as I've had it drilled into me at school that it doesn't matter if my music is 'popular' or not, I find myself wondering: why not? In 1941 the world rose up to embrace Shostakovich's 7th Symphony as the anthem against Fascism. I can't help but dream that music could reach out the same way today. Why shouldn't my music matter to people? Does it always have to be compromising my art to create something of universal or at least wide appeal?
Add a lightning scar, (He once wrote a ballet called Bolt)
put him in front of an orchestra with a baton,
and he will face the dark forces that cannot be named
(lest the censors catch onto his subversive aims!)
Finally, I can't finish this post without putting in a plug for one of my favorite works of all time, Shostakovich's monumental set of 24 Preludes and Fugues. It is one of the few works for which I have a preferred recording: Vladimir Ashkenazy on piano. (Jazz pianist Kieth Jarrett has also recorded the set, which is interesting, but not my favorite) Each prelude is something wonderful, and each fugue a portal into the transcendent. While the set is inspired by and owes much to Bach's sets of preludes and fugues (The Well-Tempered Clavier), it is completely a product of the twentieth century. It is perhaps the most abstract and free music Dmitri every wrote. Listen to it some Sunday when you can just sit and focus. Is this the voice of compromise, pandering to the public or to the demands of Socialist Realism? Maybe you will hear what I hear, the beautiful songs of my friend Dmitri.