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Dmitri Shostakovich and the Symphony No. 1

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (September 25, 1906 –August  9,  1975) was a Soviet Russian composer and pianist and a prominent figure of 20th century music who was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the second of three children of Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich and Sofiya Vasilievna Kokoulina.  Dmitri was a child prodigy as a pianist and composer, his talent becoming apparent after he began piano lessons with his mother at the age of nine.   In 1918, he wrote a funeral march in memory of two leaders of the Kadet party, murdered by Bolshevik sailors, and in 1919, at the age of 13, he was allowed to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, then headed by Alexander Glazunov.  Shostakovich studied piano with Leonid Nikolayev after a year in the class of Elena Rozanova, composition with Maximilian Steinberg, and counterpoint and fugue with Nikolay Sokolov, with whom he became friends, and  attended Alexander Ossovsky’s history of music classes.   His first major musical achievement was the First Symphony, premiered 1926, written as his graduation piece at the age of nineteen.

     After graduation, Shostakovich initially embarked on a dual career as concert pianist and composer. He won an “honorable mention” at the First International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1927. After the competition Shostakovich met the conductor Bruno Walter, who was so impressed by the composer’s First Symphony that he conducted it at its Berlin premiere later that year. Leopold Stokowski was equally impressed and gave the work its U.S. premiere the following year in Philadelphia and also made the work’s first recording.  Thereafter, Shostakovich concentrated on composition, and soon limited his performances primarily to those of his own works. In 1927 he wrote his Second Symphony (subtitled “To October”), a patriotic piece with a great pro-Soviet choral finale. Due to its experimental nature, as with the subsequent Third Symphony, the pieces were not critically acclaimed with the enthusiasm as granted to the First.  1927 also marked the beginning of Shostakovich’s relationship with Ivan Sollertinsky, who remained his closest friend until the latter’s death in 1944. Sollertinsky introduced the composer to the music of Gustav Mahler, which had a strong influence on his music from the Fourth Symphony onwards.

     While writing the Second Symphony, Shostakovich also began work on his satirical opera The Nose, based on a story by Gogol. In June 1929, the opera was given a concert performance.  Shostakovich composed his first film score for the 1929 silent movie, The New Babylon, set during the 1871 Paris Commune.  In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Shostakovich worked at TRAM, a proletarian youth theatre.  Much of this period was spent writing his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which was first performed in 1934.   Shostakovich married his first wife, Nina Varzar, in 1932.   In 1936, Shostakovich fell from official favor.  The year began with a series of attacks on him in Pravda, in particular an article entitled, “Muddle Instead of Music.”  Shortly after the article, Pravda published another, “Ballet Falsehood,” that criticized Shostakovich’s ballet The Limpid Stream.

     The publication of the Pravda editorials coincided with the composition of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. Shostakovich continued to compose the symphony and planned a premiere at the end of 1936. Rehearsals began that December, but after a number of rehearsals Shostakovich, for reasons still debated today, decided to withdraw the symphony from the public. During 1936 and 1937, in order to maintain as low a profile as possible between the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, Shostakovich mainly composed film music, a genre favored by Stalin and lacking in dangerous personal expression. The composer’s response to his denunciation was the Fifth Symphony of 1937, which was musically more conservative than his earlier works.  The success put Shostakovich in good standing once again.  It was at this time that Shostakovich composed the first of his string quartets.  In September 1937, he began to teach composition at the Leningrad Conservatory, which provided some financial security but interfered with his own creative work.

     During the Second World War, Shostakovich tried to enlist for the military but was turned away because of his poor eyesight.  His greatest and most famous wartime contribution was the Seventh Symphony.  In the spring of 1943, the family moved to Moscow. At the time of the Eighth Symphony’s premiere, the tide had turned for the Red Army. Therefore the public, and most importantly the authorities, wanted another triumphant piece from the composer. Instead, they got the Eighth Symphony, perhaps the ultimate in sombre and violent expression within Shostakovich’s output.   The work was unofficially but effectively banned until 1956.  The Ninth Symphony (1945), in contrast, is an ironic Haydnesque parody. Shostakovich continued to compose chamber music, notably his Second Piano Trio (Op. 67).

     In 1948 Shostakovich, along with many other composers, was again denounced when Andrei Zhdanov, Chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, accused Shostakovich and other composers, such as Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, for writing inappropriate and formalist music. This was part of an ongoing anti-formalism campaign intended to root out all Western compositional influence as well as any perceived “non-Russian” output.   Most of Shostakovich’s works were banned, and his family had privileges withdrawn.  Shostakovich was among those who were dismissed from the Conservatoire altogether.   In the next few years he composed three categories of work: film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works “for the desk drawer.”

     The restrictions on Shostakovich’s music and living arrangements were eased in 1949, when Stalin decided that the Soviets needed to send artistic representatives to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York City, and that Shostakovich should be amongst them.   That same year Shostakovich was obliged to compose the cantata Song of the Forests, which praised Stalin as the “great gardener.” In 1951 the composer was made a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of RSFSR.  Stalin’s death in 1953 was the biggest step towards Shostakovich’s rehabilitation as a creative artist, which was marked by his Tenth Symphony.   His wife, Nina Varzar, died in 1954. He married his second wife, Komsomol activist Margarita Kainova, in 1956.  In 1954, Shostakovich wrote the Festive Overture, opus 96, that was used as the theme music for the 1980 Summer Olympics.  

     The year 1960 marked another turning point in Shostakovich’s life: he joined the Communist Party.. His Twelfth Symphony, which portrays the Bolshevik Revolution and was completed in 1961, was dedicated to Vladimir Lenin and called “The Year 1917.” Around this time, his health also began to deteriorate.  Shostakovich’s musical response to these personal crises was the Eighth String Quartet, composed in only three days. He subtitled the piece, “To the victims of fascism and war.”    The year  1962 saw Shostakovich again turn to the subject of anti-Semitism in his Thirteenth Symphony (subtitled Babi Yar).   Shostakovich suffered from chronic ill health, but he resisted giving up cigarettes and vodka. Beginning in 1958 he suffered from a debilitating condition that particularly affected his right hand, eventually forcing him to give up piano playing; in 1965 it was diagnosed as polio. He also suffered heart attacks the following year and again in 1971, and several falls in which he broke both his legs.  A preoccupation with his own mortality permeates Shostakovich’s later works, among them the later quartets and the Fourteenth Symphony of 1969. The Fifteenth Symphony of 1971 is, by contrast, melodic and retrospective in nature, quoting Wagner, Rossini and the composer’s own Fourth Symphony.  Shostakovich died of lung cancer on August 9, 1975 and after a civic funeral was interred in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow.   His last work was his Viola Sonata, which was first performed on 28th of December 1975, four months after Shostakovich’s death.

     Shostakovich’s musical influence on later composers outside the former Soviet Union has been relatively slight.  His works are broadly tonal and in the Romantic tradition, but with elements of atonality and chromaticism.  His output is dominated by his cycles of symphonies and string quartets, each numbering fifteen. The symphonies are distributed fairly evenly throughout his career, while the quartets are concentrated towards the latter part. Among the most popular are the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies and the Eighth and Fifteenth Quartets. Other works include the operas Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Nose, and the unfinished The Gamblers based on the comedy of Nikolai Gogol; six concertos (two each for piano, violin and cello); two piano trios; two pieces for string octet; a piano quintet, and a large quantity of film music. His piano works include two solo sonatas, an early set of preludes, and a later set of 24 preludes and fugues. Other works include several song cycles and ballets.

     Works by Shostakovich which I have are:

                The Age of Gold (1930): Ballet Suite, op. 22a. 

                Festive Overture, op. 96 (1954). 

                Piano Concerto No. 1 in cm, op. 35 (1933). 

                Piano Concerto No. 2 in FM, op. 102 (1957). 

                Symphony No. 1 in fm, op. 10 (1925).


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