Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The birth of one of the twentieth century’s most well-known composers: Dmitri Shostakovich…
Born into a middle-class St Petersburg family on September 25, 1906, Dmitri Shostakovich had a relatively conventional childhood, despite the turbulence in Russia at the time. The event we now call the 1905 Russian Revolution was very much still resonating in 1906, and politically speaking the situation was tense all the way up to—and of course after—the revolutionary year of 1917. But the exceptional event of the young Dmitri’s childhood was the discovery of his remarkable musical gifts, at the age of eight.
In her book Shostakovich: A Life, Laurel E. Fay describes the memorable first lesson Dmitri received from his piano teacher mother, Sofya. “Within minutes,” Fay writes, “she recognized that she was dealing with a youngster of precocious musical ability, possessing perfect pitch and a phenomenal memory.” He progressed on the piano with ridiculous ease, and also started composing from the age of nine.
His childhood was not untouched by politics, though: that would have been impossible. The February Revolution of 1917 was welcomed by many middle-class Russians, and the Shostakovich family was no exception. Fay singles out the Revolutionary funeral march “You Fell a Victim” as a piece of music that made a particular impression on the young composer—some 40 years later, he was to use it in his Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905.”
By his teens, music was flowing out of him. He entered the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1919, and his Op. 1, a Scherzo for orchestra, dates from that very year. He established himself as a composer through the 1920s, often writing witty music that chimed with his absurdist sense of humor, such as the opera The Nose, as well as the First Piano Concerto with its cheery solo trumpet part.
Famously, things changed forever after Stalin attended a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in early 1936, and the talented young composer was publicly chastised and even threatened in an extraordinary newspaper article.
“Stalin was quickly moving to 1937, that famous year of our history. And it was already clear for [Shostakovich] that the country was becoming a concentration camp. There was no place for Shostakoviches.”
From then on, Shostakovich’s relationship with the Soviet authorities was deeply, troublingly problematic—even after the Fifth Symphony, which he called, by way of apology, “a Soviet artist’s practical creative reply to just criticism.”
It’s impossible to disentangle Shostakovich’s works from the politics that surrounded them. That’s specifically so because of how involved Soviet officials were in artistic matters—but it’s also the case simply because of just how profoundly the Soviet Union’s turbulent politics affected every one of its citizens. Uncannily gifted musician as he was, Shostakovich’s music gives that story a vital, if ambiguous, voice.