Dmitry Shostakovich

During Dmitry Shostakovich’s lifetime, most people in the Soviet Union and abroad regarded the composer as a staunch supporter of communism.  This accepted belief was not questioned until after Shostakovich’s death with the publication of Solomon Volkov’s Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov.  In the book, Volkov depicts an artist at odds with the Soviet government.  Before long, however, Volkov’s authority was undermined by the revelation that many of its passages, supposedly resulting from interviews with Shostakovich, had earlier appeared as speeches or articles by the composer.  Nonetheless, many of Shostakovich’s friends and colleagues insisted that the views expressed in Volkov’s book were authentic.  However, the debate concerning Shostakovich’s true political beliefs – and how these are embodied in his music – continues to rage.

Background and Education

Dmitry Shostakovich was born on September 12/25, 1906, in St. Petersburg, Russia.  His father, Dmitry Boleslavovich Shostakovich, was descended from a Polish family that had occasionally revolted against Russia but had since been integrated into Russian society.  Dmitry Boleslavovich studied histology before becoming a civil servant at the Palace of Weights and Measures, but he also sang.  Sofya Vasilyevna Kokoulin, Shostakovich’s mother, had studied piano at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  The pair married in 1903 and had two daughters in addition to Dmitry, the middle child.

The elder Shostakovich’s government position provided his family with many comforts rare at the time.  They owned a piano, and a nanny and a tutor looked after the children.  Also, as a perk of Dmitry Boleslavovich’s job, the Shostakovich family had two cars and a summer house near Lake Ladoga at their disposal.  Shostakovich attended school with the children of such Russian notables as Leon Trotsky.

Shostakovich was exposed to music, especially opera, from an early age.  Not until 1915, however, did he begin formal music studies.  Once he did, it turned out that he had perfect pitch, and he progressed rapidly as a pianist.  By 1917, despite a lack of encouragement from his first teacher, he was also composing short pieces.  Almost all were later lost or destroyed.

Perhaps because of the lack of support from his teacher, Shostakovich decided to move to another school.  His mother put him in touch with Aleksandr Glazunov, who found Shostakovich’s pieces promising.  Shortly thereafter, in 1919, Shostakovich entered the Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) Conservatory, where he learned composition from Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg.  He also studied violin and conducting.  While most of the teachers at the conservatory, including Steinberg, were conservative in their musical outlook, Shostakovich nevertheless became aware of and interested in the latest works of Hindemith and Bartók.

Although they appear to have welcomed the October Revolution, life under Lenin was hard for the Shostakovich family.  Glazunov interceded with the authorities on their behalf several times, for they frequently ran out of rations.  Shostakovich’s father contracted pneumonia and died in 1922.  Thereafter, his mother began working as a typist, and his older sister Mariya started giving private piano lessons.  Despite such deprivations and the onset of tuberculosis, Shostakovich continued studying at the conservatory.  He had an operation just before his final piano exams, performing with a bandaged neck.

After successfully completing his piano examinations in 1923, Shostakovich began working on his first symphony.  Recovering from the surgery was also a priority, so he headed for a health cure in the Crimea.  There he met and fell in love with Tatyana Glivenko, daughter of a Moscow philologist.  He was to write to her for the next nine years, even after she married in 1929.  The fact that he never made a move to marry her himself is probably a reflection of his belief in free love.

Having recuperated, Shostakovich planned to do post-graduate work in piano as well as continue his composition studies at his former conservatory.  Unfortunately, he was denied entrance to the program; the official reason given for his rejection was his lack of maturity.  Frustrated, Shostakovich almost entered the Moscow Conservatory instead.  In October 1924, however, he was readmitted to the Leningrad Conservatory.  (Petrograd and its conservatory had been renamed following the death of Lenin in January 1924).

First Compositional Successes

Supporting himself by playing the piano at silent film showings, Shostakovich continued working on his First Symphony, which he completed in July 1925.  The work, influenced by Stravinsky and Hindemith, was performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic on May 12, 1926, receiving accolades from the audience and moderate praise from the critics.  The symphony, subsequently conducted by Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, and other famous Europeans, thrust Shostakovich into the Western spotlight.

The following decade was a triumphant one.  The young Shostakovich rapidly became one of the pet composers of the Communist regime, receiving commissions for film scores, incidental music, and ballets.  He even had a few pieces published, including the First Symphony and the First Piano Concerto.  Otherwise, he continued performing as a pianist on occasion, although he eventually decided to play only his own works and chamber music.

In 1927, Shostakovich began work on his first opera, The Nose, based on a work by Nikolay Gogol.  He also completed his Second Symphony, commissioned by the Propaganda Department of the State Music Publishing House and intended to honor the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution.  In 1930, when The Nose was finally performed, audiences enjoyed the work, but Shostakovich was the target of some of the harshest criticism he had so far received. 

This shift in critical climate was politically determined.  In 1929, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) had taken over another organization, one that was more liberal and Western-oriented.  While the RAPM was still technically independent of the Soviet government, it was closely allied with state policies that wielded increasing control over the arts.  Finally, in 1932, this association was itself closed down in favor of the Union of Soviet Composers, which initially claimed to be more liberal but soon proved to be little but an enforcer of state propaganda. 

Shostakovich became increasingly guarded in his public statements during this time, quoting the official party line in his first interview in a Western publication.  As a result of this caution, Shostakovich’s own views about the intersection of communism and music are next to impossible to pin down.  For example, he spoke about despising jazz as a “bourgeois” genre but participated in a jazz competition himself.  He produced many pieces of musical propaganda for the Communist Party, but he seems to have disliked the clichéd librettos and to have regarded many of the commissions as annoying chores. 

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Downfall

In 1931, Shostakovich spoke out, denouncing Soviet music.  This could well have been a dangerous move, but luckily for Shostakovich, the authorities agreed with him and had been planning a new approach for some time.  The RAPM was to be replaced with the Union of Soviet Composers, and Shostakovich was involved in the reorganization.

At the same time, beginning in late 1931, Shostakovich took on one of his most ambitious projects to date, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  His first task was to turn the original short story by Nikolay Leskov into a libretto.  This accomplished, he began work on the music, but as always, official projects interrupted his work.  He also completed the First Piano Concerto and the Cello Sonata around this time. 

In 1927, even as he kept writing to Tatyana Glivenko, Shostakovich began a relationship with a young physics student, Nina Varzar.  In May 1932, Shostakovich finally abandoned his correspondence with Glivenko and married Varzar, despite the disapproval of both their mothers.  The couple then moved into the Shostakovich family apartment.  They remained there until 1934, when money from the production of Lady Macbeth allowed them to buy their own place.  In that summer, Shostakovich became captivated with translator Yelena Konstantinovskaya.  Nina was furious.  There was at least a separation and possibly an official divorce.  In 1935, however, Shostakovich and Konstantinovskaya separated and he and Nina reconciled.  The following year, their daughter Galina was born.

Lady Macbeth, which had premiered in 1934, initially succeeded, both in the eyes of audiences and in those of critics.  It had 177 productions in its initial two-year run.  As a result, Shostakovich was the uncontested dean of Soviet composers.  Nevertheless, he must have been afraid given the political atmosphere: in December 1934, Stalin began ordering the imprisonment and murder of various prominent artists.  The reign of fear continued, but Shostakovich was not personally affected until 1936.  On January 26 of that year, Stalin and some of the most important Communist party members attended a performance of Lady Macbeth.  Two days later, in an anonymous article titled “Muddle Instead of Music,” Lady Macbeth was denigrated in no uncertain terms. 

Shostakovich’s career appeared to be over.  Musicians and writers close to him were arrested, as were his mother-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and former lover Konstantinovskaya.  Shostakovich attempted to reason with Stalin through intermediaries, but to no avail.  Nevertheless, Shostakovich himself was not arrested, and he gradually rose from the ashes.  He modified his music, making it seem more melodic and approachable, at least on the surface.

Recovering from Disgrace

After Lady Macbeth, Shostakovich’s first major premiere was the Fifth Symphony.  The audience reaction – tears during the slow movement and half an hour of applause at the conclusion – shows how much ordinary citizens wanted to see Shostakovich overcome his critics.  Shostakovich furthered the impression that he had become an obedient Soviet musician, approving (or possibly writing) the description of his symphony as “a Soviet artist’s practical creative reply to just criticism.”  Most critics also agreed to let bygones be bygones, although some (along with many writers today) felt that the Fifth Symphony was not an unambiguous embodiment of the Soviet ideals.

In 1937, Shostakovich also recovered some of his public standing by taking a teaching position at the Leningrad Conservatory.  He became a full professor two years later.  While this helped his income, teaching took away from his time for composing.  One of his only major works during the late 1930s was the Sixth Symphony, which did not live up to the expectations raised by the Fifth.

On June 22, 1941, Leningrad came under siege by the Nazis.  Shostakovich responded by beginning the Seventh Symphony.  He also arranged Russian folk songs during this time, suggesting that he was motivated by patriotism.  He could have been evacuated from Leningrad in August but decided to stay on.  On October 1, however, he decided to leave, ending up in the city of Kuybischev (now Samara) in the southern Ural Mountains.  Before the end of the year, he had completed the Seventh Symphony.  The work soon became a symbol of valiant Soviet resistance to the Nazi threat.  Orchestras all over the west played it, as did the few musicians left in Leningrad itself.  They even radioed their performance to the German troops encircling the city.

Shostakovich spent much of 1942 on the road, traveling to Moscow and various other cities.  In 1943, he decided to settle in Moscow, and he soon became a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory.  Soon thereafter, he began work on the Eighth Symphony.  Other works of this period reflect the struggle against Germany.  The Second Piano Trio, for example, paid tribute to those who had died in the siege of Leningrad and the Holocaust. 

Second Denunciation and the Post-Stalin “Thaw”

In 1947, Soviet authorities still approved sufficiently of Shostakovich to give him such posts as chair of the Leningrad Composers’ Organization.  The next year, however, a general crackdown in the arts affected the composer, who was accused of “formalism.”  Shostakovich took the threat seriously enough to issue a public apology, but his true feelings are probably better shown by the cantata Antiformalisticheskiy Rayok, a satire never performed until 1989.

The apology did not suffice at first, and Shostakovich lost his teaching posts.  Eventually, he was able to win his way back into the government’s good graces through the usual propagandistic film scores and cantatas glorifying major anniversaries.  Other projects, such as the Violin Concerto and the Fourth String Quartet, were mostly placed on the back burner.

By March 1949, Shostakovich was considered to have been rehabilitated (again).  Stalin even sent him to a Peace Conference in New York that month.  The next year, the composer represented the Soviet Union at the Bach bicentenary festivities in East Germany, having composed a series of 24 preludes and fugues for the occasion.

Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, marked the beginning of another “thaw” – a period of relative artistic freedom.  Most of Shostakovich’s works, even those previously banned, were again heard in concerts.  He even received the title “People’s Artist of the USSR” in 1954, along with various other Soviet and international awards, honorary doctorates, and the like.  Another benefit was that Shostakovich entered a new period of productivity, beginning the Tenth Symphony in the summer of 1953 and premiering the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets that winter.

Under Khruschyov, Shostakovich and other artists enjoyed greater freedoms, at least with regards to travel.  Shostakovich took trips to England in 1958 and 1960 and America (for the second time) in 1959.  Some restrictions, however, were still in place.  In 1956, Shostakovich sought to have Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk reevaluated, only to be told that it still could not be performed.  He set about revising it and eventually succeeded in having it again staged in 1963.

Last Years

Even as his career enjoyed a renaissance, Shostakovich’s private life was in shambles.  In 1954, his wife died of cancer, and his mother passed away the following year.  Lonely, he soon sought to marry again, proposing to his former pupil Galina Ustvolskaya, but she rejected his offer.  In 1956, he married Margarita Kaynova, who worked at the Communist Youth League, but they divorced only three years later.  Ustvolskaya declined a second proposal soon thereafter.

At the same time, Shostakovich’s health was starting to fail.  Beginning in 1958, he suffered from a type of polio, which affected his right hand.  He also broke his leg in 1960 and again in 1967.  These and various other ailments meant that he was in and out of the hospital regularly. 

In 1960, Shostakovich finally gave in and became a member of the Communist Party.  A year later, he was able to begin teaching at the Leningrad Conservatory again.  Seemingly in return for being allowed to teach and having greater job security, Shostakovich put his name to or even delivered various official speeches on behalf of the Communist Party.  Most controversially, he participated in the condemnation of Andrey Sakharov.  As distasteful as this capitulation may have been, the benefits included having the Fourth Symphony and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (retitled Katerina Ismailova) performed.  While the Thirteenth Symphony briefly caused political difficulties, Shostakovich managed to coexist peacefully with the Soviet government thereafter.

In November 1962, Shostakovich married for the third time, this time to a young editor named Irina Supinskaya whom he had met two years previously.  The marriage, which lasted until his death, seems to have been a happy one.  Shostakovich continued to suffer from ill health, however.  His hand never recovered fully from his bout with polio, and a heart attack on May 28, 1966, ended his career as a pianist.  Five years later, on September 17, 1971, he had another heart attack.  He then stopped smoking, but nevertheless developed lung cancer within two years.

Despite this suffering, the composer’s last years were very successful in a professional sense.  The government bestowed such awards as “Hero of Socialist Labor” and “Gold Medal of the Hammer and Sickle.”  In 1966, the year of his sixtieth birthday, his works began to be published in a collected edition.  Shostakovich’s son Maxim was building a career as a conductor by this time, adding to his father’s renown by conducting much of the composer’s music.

From the mid-1960s onward, after a lengthy period inactivity, he also became increasingly productive as a composer.  His Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies and Twelfth and Thirteenth String Quartets, all of which make use of the twelve-tone method, show that he was still open to experimentation.  The Fourteenth Symphony and Thirteenth String Quartet also reflect a preoccupation with mortality.  Shortly after completing his Viola Sonata, Shostakovich died on August 9, 1975.


Fanning, David (text), and Laurel E. Fay (work-list, bibliography): ‘Shostakovich, Dmitry’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 31 May 2007), <>

Fay, Laurel E.  Shostakovich: A Life.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.