Dmitri Shostakovich, born and raised in St. Petersburg, studied at its fabled Conservatory in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolutions of 1917. His teachers there included Leonid Nikolayev (piano) and Maximilian Steinberg (composition). With the premiere of his graduation piece, the First Symphony, in 1926, Shostakovich's exceptional career was launched. He quickly established himself at the forefront of young Soviet composers. Over the next several years he experimented with avant-garde techniques and became actively involved in the theatrical world; his phenomenal natural abilities and versatility made him a collaborator sought after by theater and film directors, opera and ballet companies.
Two years after his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, had scored a sensational triumph and established itself securely in the repertory, Stalin went to see it in January 1936. A few days later, Shostakovich and his opera were subjected to brutal, state-sponsored attacks. The opera disappeared from the boards. In the process of completing his Fourth Symphony at the time, Shostakovich was subsequently forced to withdraw it, his most ambitious symphony, from rehearsal. It would receive its first performance only a quarter-century later. His Fifth Symphony, publicly unveiled amidst apprehension at the height of the Stalinist "terror" in 1937, proved a resounding success. The composer's reputation was rehabilitated. The Fifth Symphony remains one of his most popular works to this day.
During World War II, Shostakovich responded to the Nazi invasion of Russia and Hitler's blockade of his native city by composing his Seventh Symphony ("Dedicated to the city of Leningrad"). Extensively performed throughout Russia — even in blockaded Leningrad — it became an inspiring symbol of heroic resistance. At the time it received its American premiere, in July 1942, Shostakovich was featured on the cover of Time magazine. In 1948, Shostakovich's music was once again the target of official condemnation. Only after Stalin's death in 1953 and the premiere of the composer's Tenth Symphony was he able to reclaim his legitimate position as the most eminent and influential among Soviet composers, a status that remained unchallenged for the rest of his life. His official stature enabled him to take risks in his compositions, such as setting controversial texts (including "Babi Yar") by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his Thirteenth Symphony.
Shostakovich was fortunate in attracting some of the most gifted performers of the era — Yevgeny Mravinsky, David Oistrakh, and Mstislav Rostropovich among them — as ardent champions of his music. In his last years, he turned increasingly from large-scale "public" works to music of confessional intimacy, concentrating on the genre of string quartet and vocal music.A highly politicized figure during his lifetime and since — because of a high-profile career carved out in the conditions of Communist dictatorship coupled with the immense emotive power of his music — by the time of his widely-celebrated centennial in 2006 Shostakovich was hailed by common consensus as one of the greatest twentieth-century composers. A substantial body of his large and varied musical output has established itself firmly in the standard repertory.
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