Critics generally agree that Shostakovich, in his 15 symphonies
and 15 string quartets, exhibits remarkable stature and range of
expression. The influence of Mahler is particularly visible in the
epic scale of the symphonies, with their frequent juxtaposition of
tragedy and savage irony.
The listener discovers a far more ambiguous distance, however,
between Shostakovich as the foremost Soviet composer of his time —
with a long list of optimistic and affirmative "official" works to his name — and the private man, whose bleak depression
appears at its most extreme in such late works as the String
quartet No. 15, made up of six Adagio movements.
The young Shostakovich studied at the St Petersburg
Conservatoire, taking time off from his studies to play the piano
in cinemas to support his sisters and widowed mother. He was
outstanding as both a pianist and composer, and in 1927 won a
prize at the Warsaw Chopin Competition for his playing. His
Symphony No. I, a precociously assured masterpiece written in
1924 and 1925, soon gained a place in the international
repertoire, which it has retained to this day.
Incidental music for film and stage suited Shostakovich's
fluent abilities, and in an opera, The nose, he explored
his gift for satire. He also employed satire in the opera Lady Macbeth of
heighten the tragic emotional world of the central character, a
frustrated wife who murders her husband. To start with, the opera
was a great success, performed 83 times in St Petersburg and 97 in Moscow between 1934 and 1936.
In 1936, however, the composer suffered a dramatic reversal of
fortune when an article in Pravda entitled "Chaos Instead
of Music" viciously attacked the modernist tendencies of his
Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in 1 937 was subtitled by
the composer "the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified
criticism." While it reinstated the composer in official favour —
and remains popular -one can detect a subtext of irony in its
hollow heroics. Shostakovich followed with his Symphony No.
7 "Leningrad", a straightforward and widely performed symbol of
wartime patriotism, then with the more ambiguous Eighth
symphony. His increasing exploration of chamber music and its
capacity for expressing more private utterances resulted in his
again being condemned, along with fellow Soviets Prokofiev and
Aram Khachaturian, in the cultural purge of 1948.
Shostakovich resorted to writing vacuous, optimistic trivia,
holding back works such as the Violin concerto No. I that
might annoy Stalin. Stalin's death in 1953 gradually ushered in a
period of official relaxation: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10
of that year has the air of a personal statement, with its
ubiquitous use of a figure derived from letters of the composer's
name, and its slow progression from darkness to guarded optimism.
By the 1960s sufficient liberalization had occurred for Lady
Macbeth to be performed again, and the Symphony No. 13,
though ostensibly dealing with Nazi atrocities against the Jews,
was widely interpreted as a condemnation of Stalin.
Shostakovich suffered from ill health during his last decade,
and much of the lean music dating from that period is concerned
with death. Of his Symphony No. 14 he said, "The entire
symphony is my protest against death": a song cycle for soprano,
bass, and string orchestra, it is a striking instance of possibly
the greatest symphonist of his time redefining what the symphony