Childhood & Early Life
Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906 (O.S. 12 September) in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich was a chemical engineer at the ‘Bureau of Weights and Measures’, while his mother Sofia Vasilievna Kokoulina was a pianist who studied piano under Alexandra Rozanova at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
Shostakovich was his parents’ second child, and he had two sisters named Maria Fredericks and Zoya Dmitrievna Shostakovich. His elder sister Maria grew up to be a musician and teacher, while his younger sister Zoya became a veterinarian.
Since his father’s name was also Dmitri, his mother started calling him ‘Yaroslav’. But the priest, who presided over his christening, insisted that he be called by his father’s name. Thus, he became Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, while Mitya became his nickname.
As a child, Shostakovich showed no interest in learning music, but loved to listen to it. Whenever there was a soiree at his home, he hid in the dark corners of the house, enjoying music well past his scheduled bedtime. He also listened through the walls when chamber music soirees were held in their next-door apartment.
In the spring of 1915, he was taken to a musical theatre for the first time, where he watched ‘Tale of Tsar Saltan’ by Rimsky-Korsakov. Although he enjoyed the experience, he remained reluctant to learn music. Nonetheless, his mother started teaching him piano in the month of July that year.
While teaching piano to Shostakovich, his mother realized that he was a gifted musician with perfect pitch and a phenomenal memory. Therefore, sometime in mid-August, she took him to Ignatiy Glyasser, a leading music teacher in the town. In September 1915, Shostakovich joined the music school and started studying under Mrs. Glyasser.
In the autumn of 1915, he began attending the Shidlovskaya Commercial School, which was renamed ‘108th Soviet School’, a year after ‘Russian Revolution of 1917’. Although he was an avid reader and spent a lot of time in his father’s library, his heart was devoted to music.
He was making rapid progress in learning music and entered Glyasser’s class in 1916. Glyasser taught him sonatas of Haydn and Mozart and the fugal works of Bach for two years. By 1918, Shostakovich had also started writing music.
In 1918, his mother took him to her own teacher Alexandra Rozanova, who was quick to recognize his potential as a composer and began cultivating it. At Rozanova’s recommendation, he also studied music under Georgiy Bruni in the spring and summer of 1919. Concurrently, he began to prepare for the Conservatory’s entrance exams.
When ‘108th Soviet School’ shut down in 1919, Shostakovich enrolled in Stoyunina School. In the same year, he joined the Petrograd Conservatory to study composition and piano, bypassing preparatory theoretical courses.
Initially, his parents were hesitant about letting him study two subjects, but agreed when urged by Conservatory head Alexander Glazunov, who personally monitored his progress. Determined to devote his life to music, Shostakovich stopped paying much attention to his academics and left school without any certificate in 1921.
At the Conservatory, he studied piano under Leonid Nikolayev, composition under Maximilian Steinberg, counterpoint and fugue under Nikolay Sokolov and history of music under Alexander Ossovsky. In 1926, he graduated from the Conservatory and wrote ‘Symphony No. 1 in F minor’ as his graduation piece.
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Shostakovich began his career as a concert pianist and composer. His graduation piece ‘Symphony No. 1 in F Minor’ (opus 10), performed on 12 May 1926 by the Leningrad Philharmoni Orchestra, was a tremendous success. But his dry style of playing piano, with emotional restraint, was not appreciated by many.
In 1927, he entered ‘Międzynarodowy Konkurs Pianistyczny im Fryderyka Chopina’ (International Chopin Piano Competition) but fared poorly, as he was suffering from appendicitis. His music, however, received an ‘honorable mention’ and led to a meeting with Bruno Walter, who was so impressed by his ‘Symphony No. 1’ that he conducted its Berlin premiere in November 1927.
Shostakovich wrote ‘Symphony No 2 in B major’ (opus 14) and dedicated it to the October revolution, subtitling it as ‘To October’. It was first performed in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra on 5 November 1927 and then in Moscow.
In 1928, he completed his first opera ‘The Nose’; and in June 1929, it was performed at concerts. Since its music sprang from action, it was poorly received. Its stage premiere, held on 18 January 1930, received lukewarm reviews from critics, but it was popular among the audience. It was performed 16 times in total.
Denunciations & Return to Favor
Towards the end of the 1920s, Joseph Stalin began exercising control over Russian culture and started demanding popular and direct style in music. He banned avant-garde productions in 1932. However, Dmitry Shostakovich did not face any problems in the first four years of the totalitarian rule in Russia.
On 22 January 1934, he had his opera ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ premiered in Leningrad. Although initially a success, it began to be criticized by the government press in 1936 following direct orders from Stalin. Even those, who had earlier praised it, were forced to recant in writing.
Despite attacks from the administration, Shostakovich continued to write music and completed his ‘Symphony No 4 in C minor’. He intended to hold its premiere in December 1936, but after several rehearsals, he was forced by the Communist Party officials to withdraw it. The symphony was eventually premiered on 30 December 1961 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Kirill Kondrashin.
Shostakovich wrote ‘Symphony No 5 in D minor’ sometime between April and July 1937 to stay afloat and held its first performance on November 21. While musically more conservative than his earlier pieces, it proved to be a major success, receiving a long ovation. Meanwhile, from September 1937 onwards, he had also begun teaching composition at the ‘Leningrad Conservatory’.
To satisfy his urge for experiments, he began to write chamber music, writing his first string quarters in 1937-1938. This genre enabled him to express ideas that could not have been communicated through his more public symphonies.
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In 1939, Shostakovich was commissioned to write a suitable marching band for the Russian Army. It was to be performed during the Army’s march through Helsinki. He wrote ‘The Suit on Finish Themes’ for the occasion and submitted it on 3 December 1939. It was however not performed until 2001 because the parade never took place in Helsinki.
During the Second World War, he created some magnificent pieces. First among them was ‘Symphony No 7 in C major’, which he completed in December 1941. Dedicated to the besieged city of Leningrad, the symphony was premiered on 9 August 1942 in Leningrad itself.
Shostakovich lived in Leningrad during the first few months of the siege, but was evacuated after that. Therefore, he could not attend the premiere of ‘Symphony No 7 in C major’. But during his stay, he joined the night watches and firefighting teams, personally defusing incendiary bombs.
In 1943, he moved to Moscow and completed ‘Symphony 8 in C minor’, another of his most acclaimed works. In 1944, he wrote ‘The Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor’. It was followed by ‘Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major’, which he completed in 1945.
Shostakovich began teaching at the ‘Moscow Conservatory’ in 1943. But in 1948, he was accused of formalism and denounced for the second time. It cost him his jobs at Leningrad and the Moscow Conservatory, and he was also threatened with arrests. But his voice could not be fully suppressed, as he started writing music for films to earn his living.
During his second denunciation, he also wrote some ‘desk drawer’ pieces, such as ‘Violin Concerto No. 1’, ‘From Jewish Folk Poetry’ and ‘Symphony No 10 in E minor’. While the last-mentioned piece was premiered soon after Stalin’s death in March 1953, the other two were first performed in 1955.
After possibly being blackmailed by the Communist Party, Dmitry Shostakovich finally joined the fascist organization in 1960. Soon, several articles, critical of individualism in music, began appearing in his name in the party’s official newspaper ‘Pravda’. In response, he wrote ‘String Quarter No 8 in C minor’ in July, officially dedicating it "to the victims of fascism and the war".
His son opined that ‘String Quarter No 8’ actually referred to the victims of totalitarianism, while his daughter believed that the composer dedicated the piece to himself. His friend Lev Lebedinsky, on the other hand, thought that the composer planned to commit suicide, and it was his epitaph.
In 1961, Shostakovich wrote ‘Symphony No. 12 in D minor’, dedicating it to the memory of Vladimir Lenin, subtitling it ‘The Year of 1917’. Many believe that he wrote it simply to toe the party line in order to protect himself. Nonetheless, it was well received in the USSR.
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In July 1962, he completed his ‘Symphony No. 13 in B Flat minor’, basing it on the poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, commemorating the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar. Thereafter, he wrote ‘Symphony No. 14’ (1969) and ‘Symphony No. 15 in A major’ (1971).
While Shostakovich rose to fame with his graduation piece ‘Symphony No. 1 in F minor’, ‘Symphony No 5 in D minor’ was possibly his first work that earned him mass popularity. After its premiere, he received a half-an-hour long ovation. The symphony also helped him repair his image after his first denunciation.
‘Symphony No 7 in C major’, subtitled ‘Leningrad’, is another of his truly popular works. Premiered on 9 August 1942 in the besieged city of Leningrad and played by musicians, who were suffering from starvation, it became a huge success. It receiving an hour-long ovation at its premiere, sending a strong message to Nazis.
Awards & Achievements
Although Dmitry Shostakovich was denounced twice, he also received a number of awards. The notable among them were the ‘USSR State Prizes’ (1941, 1942, 1946, 1950, 1956), ‘People's Artist of the Republic’ (1948), ‘People's Artist of the USSR’ (1954), ‘Order of Lenin’ (1946, 1956, 1966), ‘Hero of Socialist Labor’ (1966) and the ‘Shevchenko National Prize in Theater’ (1975).
In 1958, he was elected an honorary member of the ‘Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia’, Rome. In the same year, he also received an honorary doctorate of music from the ‘University of Oxford’.
In 1966, Shostakovich was awarded the ‘Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal’, London.
In 1967, he received ‘Decoration of Honour’ for his services to the republic of Austria.
Family & Personal Life
Dmitry Shostakovich married his first wife Nina Vassilyevna Varzar in 1932. But their initial struggle led to a divorce in 1935. At that time, she was pregnant with their first child. When the estranged couple realized that, they got married for the second time.
Their daughter Galina Dmitrievna Shostakovich, who later became a trained pianist and biologist, was born in 1936. Two years later, in May 1938, Shostakovich and his wife welcomed a son named Maxim Dmitrievich Shostakovich. He grew up to become an established conductor and pianist.
In 1954, Nina Vassilyevna Varzar passed away. At that time, Shostakovich was having affairs with two of his students; Galina Ustvolskaya and Elmira Nazirova, but nothing materialized from them. In 1956, he married Margarita Kainova, an active member of the ‘All-Union Leninist Young Communist League’. They divorced in 1960.
In 1962, Shostakovich married 27 years old Irina Antonovna and remained married to her until his death in 1975. Although she was much younger than him, she proved to be a caring wife, and he finally found some domestic peace.
In early 1958, Shostakovich began to suffer from a debilitating condition, which affected his right hand. In 1965, he was diagnosed with poliomyelitis. In 1966, he had a heart attack and another in 1971. Meanwhile, both his legs were also broken.
In spite of his multiple illnesses, he continued to work, writing ‘Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147’ in July 1975. On 9 August 1975, three weeks after completing the Sonata, he died from a heart attack in Moscow. He was interred in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.
Shostakovich Peninsula on Alexander Island, Antarctica is named in his honor.