Dmitri Shostakovich


Mark Cartwright
published on 21 February 2024
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Available in other languages: Dutch, French
Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950 (by Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA)
Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950
Deutsche Fotothek‎ (CC BY-SA)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a Russian composer of operas, ballets, concertos, string quartets, and 15 symphonies. Shostakovich was frequently denounced by the repressive Soviet state, but in some periods, he also gained official favour. He never permanently left Russia and, somehow, managed to pursue a long musical career, walking the tightrope between artistic freedom and imprisonment or worse.

Early Life

Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg (known as Petrograd from 1914) on 25 September 1906. Both of his parents came from Siberia. His mother was a professional pianist, and she taught Dmitri to play the instrument. Dmitri showed real musical talent, and he was enrolled in the Conservatory of Petrograd in 1919 when still only 13 years of age. He studied composition and piano, learning from such noted musicians as Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). He also had to take a compulsory exam on Marxist theory, a sign of the times and a taste of what it meant to be an artist in the USSR. Shostakovich helped make ends meet by working as a pianist in a cinema. He graduated in 1925. He had already composed his first symphony, and the work was premiered in May 1926 in Leningrad (the new name for Petrograd). The First Symphony was favourably received by critics at home and abroad following its performance in Berlin and Philadelphia. Two works for piano, the First Piano Sonata and Aphorisms, which premiered respectively in 1926 and 1927, were also successful and revealed Shostakovich had something new to offer the world of music.

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Music for Stage & Film

For the remainder of the 1920s and early 1930s, Shostakovich mainly composed music for the stage and for film. He wrote the satirical opera The Nose (Nos), which was based on a story by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) and which, unusually, included a section purely of percussion music. There were two ballets, The Golden Age (Zolotoy vek) and The Bolt. He wrote the music for the play The Bedbug (Klop) by Vladimir Mayakosky. Film scores, which were then vitally important for the otherwise silent movies, included New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon). The score for 1929's New Babylon was perhaps a little too avant-garde as it was considered by many cinema orchestras to be so difficult that they refused to play it. Shostakovich's music of this period is described by the musicologist Geoffrey Norris as containing "extremely complex harmonies and rhythms" (Arnold, 1681). M. Wade-Matthews describes Shostakovich's style in this period as "brittle, witty, and satirical" (480).

Unfortunately for Shostakovich, one audience member did not like his opera at all: Joseph Stalin.

Shostakovich was interested in what was happening outside the USSR in the field of music and he joined the Association for Contemporary Music (ASM), a body which promoted both the study and performance of new western music. The ASM brought Shostakovich into contact with works by innovative composers such as Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), who was causing a stir with his expressionist approach to music.

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Dmitri Shostakovich, 1925.
Dmitri Shostakovich, 1925.
Unknown Photographer (Public Domain)

Even greater success came in 1934 with the premiere in Moscow of his four-act opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Ledi Makbet Mtsenskovo uyezda). The libretto was a shocking tale of revenge and murder, with some adultery thrown in. The lyrics allowed the performers to use realistic, everyday speech. Audiences loved it, and it became another international success for the composer. Unfortunately for Shostakovich, one audience member did not like it at all: Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), leader since 1924 of an increasingly authoritarian Soviet state.

Persecution by the State

The 1930s was a period when the Soviet regime began to turn its strict censorship towards the arts in the USSR. The state promoted music that emphasised the welfare of the Soviet state, what it described rather vaguely as "socialist realism". In short, all art should include references to Soviet social and political themes. A 1932 decree saw the state control all artistic output in the USSR. Innovation, in particular, was hunted down and repressed. Shostakovich eventually fell victim to this persecution. The state took exception to the composer's Lady Macbeth. The opera gained acclaim at its premiere, but a few years later, Stalin personally saw a performance of the opera and, leaving after the first act, objected to its avant-garde dissonant music, twisted plot, and explicit themes of sex and violence. Shostakovich immediately found himself out of public favour and under attack in the press, starting with an article titled Chaos Instead of Music (Sumbur vmesto muzyki) in the powerful state newspaper Pravda. Under the oppressive and authoritarian Soviet regime, loss of work and privileges like owning a car were the least-worst consequences of failing to please; imprisonment and execution were distinct possibilities for non-conforming artists. The rehearsals of Shostakovich's equally innovative Fourth Symphony were suspended by the composer himself since he thought the official reaction would be negative. Instead, Shostakovich composed the more straightforward Fifth Symphony.

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Completed in 1937, Shostakovich described the Fifth Symphony as "a Soviet artist's response to just criticism" (Wade-Matthews, 480). In the USSR one not only had to accept criticism but also thank the critic for making their point and allowing one to correct one's 'error'. The piece does contain a hidden dig at Stalin since the finale quotes from a specific section of the opera Boris Godunov, composed by Modest Mussorgsky (1838-1881). The corresponding scene from the opera has peasants being forced under the threat of violence to hail the Tsar who has himself taken the throne by force. Shostakovich's attempt to comply with Soviet artistic requirements worked, and the symphony was well-received. A composer still had to be careful since too favourable a public reaction to some pieces could also arouse the suspicion of the authorities. The composer was back in favour, and his 1940 Piano Quintet even won the Stalin Prize. The same year he composed a new score for Boris Godunov. Another way that Shostakovich personalised his work when personalisation was not encouraged was to use the musical cypher for his initials DSCH (D, E flat, C, and B in German musical notation). This cypher "is often used as an indication of personal feeling" notes S. Sadie (366); it can be particularly heard to good effect in the Tenth Symphony. Meanwhile, the Second World War had started (1939-1945), with Russia's involvement beginning in 1941.

Western Classical Music, c. 1700-1950
Western Classical Music, c. 1700-1950
Simeon Netchev (CC BY-NC-SA)

It was also in 1941 that Shostakovich went for an even more blatant pro-Soviet position with his Seventh Symphony. This piece contained a recurring "invasion" theme and was meant to conjure up images of staunch Soviet resistance at a time when the city of Leningrad was under a lengthy siege by the German army. Shostakovich had served during the siege as a volunteer firefighter. The composer described the Seventh Symphony as "about our epoch, about our people, about our sacred war, about our victory" (Arnold, 1682). However, as we shall see, "our victory" was not of the Soviet Union, but of the shackled artists. Similarly, in 1943, Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony seemed to take inspiration from martial themes, and the Ninth Symphony celebrated the peace of 1945.

Dismissed from his teaching position at the Conservatory of Leningrad, the composer feared for his life, as he noted in his memoirs.

Shostakovich fell back out of favour with the Soviet regime in 1948 when his music was criticised for its "formalism" and "anti-democratic tendencies". What exactly these official phrases meant in terms of music is not clear and much disputed, but most musicologists agree that the pejorative term "formalism" meant showing too much technical complexity (this was elitist when Lenin had said art was for the people, i.e. it must be easily understood) and too much influence from modern and international trends. In terms of subject themes, as far as they can be conveyed in musical notes alone, "formalism" meant a lack of emphasis on socio-political subjects and too much emphasis on individualism. Composers who fell foul of the censors could be expelled from the Union of Composers, which meant their work would no longer be performed or published, and they could receive no income from their music. The ever-zealous censors even had radio signals from foreign stations jammed to make sure citizens did not hear contradictory opinions and composers were not inspired by undesirable innovations abroad.

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The Eighth Symphony was now reassessed as lacking sufficiently celebratory tones. Dismissed from his teaching position at the Conservatory of Leningrad, Shostakovich feared for his life, as he noted in his memoirs (which were published posthumously). Shostakovich turned to more obvious folk music traditions as an inspiration for his work, at least the public ones, but he did compose more freely for private chamber works. Public works that appealed to the state censors included the 1949 oratorio Song of the Forests (Pesn' o lesakh) and 1951's choral work Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets. The title of his 1952 cantata is indicative of the direction of Shostakovich's music: The Sun Shines over the Motherland (Nad Rodinoy nashey solntse siyayet).

Family & Friendships

The historian H. Schonberg describes Shostakovich in the following passage: "Thin, serious, bespectacled, nervous, shy, chain-smoking, he impressed everybody with his talent" (608). In 1932, Shostakovich married Nina Varzar; they divorced a few years later but remarried when Nina became pregnant. Nina died in 1954 of cancer, perhaps related to her research work into cosmic radiation. Shostakovich married again in 1956, and following another divorce, he married for a third time in 1962. His son Maxim became a noted conductor in his own right, and his daughter Galina was a successful concert pianist. During the persecution by the state, it was often the composer's family who suffered the most. Nina's mother was dispatched, like so many others, to a labour camp and Shostakovich's sister and her husband were arrested.

In terms of friends, a close one was Marshal Tukhachevsky, but he was executed after a show trial. Shostakovich had little time for his most famous Russian contemporary composer, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Shostakovich thought that Prokofiev could not even orchestrate his work; he described him as a poseur, and he said he had "the soul of a goose; he always had a chip on his shoulder" (Schonberg, 611). Another Russian composer Shostakovich disliked was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). He described the latter's adaptation of Mussorgksy's Boris Godunov in the following manner: "Rimsky-Korsakov groomed, waved, sluiced Mussorgsky with eau de cologne. My orchestration is crude, in keeping with Mussorgsky" (Steen, 655).

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Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich
Unknown Photographer (Public Domain)

Post-Stalin Years

Shostakovich's music career revived following the death of Stalin in 1953. He was politically rehabilitated in 1956, although he did not regain his teaching job until 1960. In 1957, he was even appointed secretary of the all-powerful Union of Soviet Composers (he had been a board member back in the 1930s). Major works of this post-Stalin period include the Tenth Symphony, Eleventh Symphony (subtitled The Year 1905), and Twelfth Symphony (subtitled The Year 1917). The composer's Eleventh Symphony was described by Michael Tippett as "self-evidently about Shostakovich's own experiences in the catastrophe of his life" (Wade-Matthews, 480). He composed The Cherry Tree Estate (Cheryomuschki) in 1958, which was a musical comedy for the stage. He wrote the film score for The Gadfly, which was later adapted into a suite, and he composed the Second Piano Concerto, the First Cello Concerto, and his Seventh and Eighth String Quartets. Shostakovich's return to public acclaim reached its zenith in 1962 when Lady Macbeth was restaged under a new title, Katerina Ismailova.

Through the 1960s, Shostakovich became more daring. In 1961, he finally felt the political atmosphere suitable for the performance of his Fourth Symphony, composed back in 1936. His Thirteenth Symphony (subtitled Babiy Yar), composed in 1962, was based on works by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a Jewish poet. The use of poems for inspiration, this time on the theme of death, was repeated for the Fourteenth Symphony, which was dedicated to the composer's friend Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). The final symphony, the Fifteenth was a suitable career finale as it repeatedly references composers of the past.

Later, in his memoirs, we discover that Shostakovich was using all of his symphonies, from number four onwards, as a private response to the excesses of the Soviet regime. Even the Seventh, meant to be an ode to Soviet resistance at Leningrad was no such thing. Shostakovich wrote that this symphony "cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler's attack…I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme" (Schonberg, 617). On the symphonies in general, Shostakovich wrote:

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The war brought much sorrow and much new destruction, but I haven't forgotten the terrible prewar years. That is what all my symphonies, beginning with the Fourth, are all about, including the Seventh and Eighth…The majority of my symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone, not even their relatives…I'm willing to write a composition for each of the victims, but that's impossible, and that's why I dedicate my music to them all. (Schonberg, 618)

Rostropovich, Shostakovich, & Richter
Rostropovich, Shostakovich, & Richter
Mikhail Ozerskiy / Михаил Озерский (CC BY-SA)

In contrast to the brooding symphonies, the composer left a great body of shorter and happier works. Shostakovich was one of the few 20th-century composers to show an interest in music for string quartets, writing 15 of them in all. He composed chamber music, piano music, song cycles, and music for choirs. Shostakovich also wrote cello concertos for the renowned cellist (and later conductor) Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). Towards the end of his career, Shostakovich continued to compose widely, reeling off more string quartets, and concertos and sonatas for various instruments. There was a prevailing sombre and brooding mood to this later work, though, reflecting the composer's increasing preoccupation with death.

Critics have struggled to explain the obvious differences in style and tone between the composer's more jaunty pieces and the seemingly total despair of others. The changing political climate in the USSR explains some of this, but certainly not all; the variations may simply reflect Shostakovich's eclectic tastes. In the composer's own words: "by studying my music you will find the whole truth about me as a man and as an artist" (Arnold, 1683).

Shostakovich's Famous Works

The most famous works by Dmitri Shostakovich include:

15 symphonies
15 string quartets
24 Preludes and Fugues
2 cello concertos
The Nose – opera (1928)
The Golden Age – ballet (1930)
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District – opera (1934)
The Limpid Stream – ballet (1935)
Song of the Forests – oratorio (1949)
The Gadfly suite (1955)

Grave of Dmitri Shostakovich
Grave of Dmitri Shostakovich
Napoleon Vier (Public Domain)

Death & Legacy

The composer's return to official favour culminated with two awards in 1966. Shostakovich was made a Hero of Socialist Labour, and he received the Order of Lenin. The ups and downs of Shostakovich relationship with officialdom have led to as-yet (and perhaps always to be) unanswered questions as to just how much he was conforming with a brutal regime to save himself and how much he might have done so out of personal conviction.

Unfortunately, the composer's health, never that robust and certainly not helped by his chain-smoking, took a downturn following a heart attack in 1966. In 1973, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Living a retired life in his final year, Shostakovich died of another heart attack in Moscow on 9 August 1975. He influenced a generation of composers in the Soviet Union, one of his star pupils at the Leningrad Conservatory was Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006). Shostakovich certainly adapted to the troubling times in which he lived, but Norris notes that "he maintained to the last an integrity and individuality which have marked him as the most important composer in the Soviet Union" (Arnold, 1681).

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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.


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Questions & Answers

What is Dmitri Shostakovich known for?

Dmitri Shostakovich is known for being a Russian composer of concertos and 15 symphonies. He was obliged to adapt his work to the requirements of the oppressive Soviet regime.

Did Shostakovich win a Stalin Prize?

Shostakovich won the Stalin Prize in 1940 for his Piano Quintet.

How did Shostakovich register his artistic independence in his work?

Although obliged to conform to oppressive Soviet artistic standards, Shostakovich included oblique protests in his works, such as his musical cypher DSCH and referencing music and scenes from works by other artists which were clearly anti-authority in nature.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2024, February 21). Dmitri Shostakovich. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Dmitri Shostakovich." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 21, 2024.

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Cartwright, Mark. "Dmitri Shostakovich." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 21 Feb 2024. Web. 24 Apr 2024.