Russia’s new Leninist government recognized Shostakovich as a valuable political tool. During the 1920s, the Soviet cultural bureau was eager to set new trends and provided him with commissions for the concert hall and stage. By the early 1930s, however, Shostakovich’s avant-garde forms, brash harmonies, and sarcastic idioms brought him into disfavor with the regime then headed by Stalin. Although popular amongst Russian audiences, he was forced to suppress new works and remove others from the active repertoire.
For the remainder of his life, Shostakovich bore the weight of a hypocritical order that threatened to destroy his life while at the same time decorating him with awards and promoting him abroad as the Revolution’s musical prodigy. As he grew increasingly famous worldwide, the physical and mental strains he suffered were great. Shostakovich’s support for Leninism, if leading biographies are accurate, had already dwindled while in childhood.
He witnessed the bloodshed of the 1917 Revolution first-hand, was malnourished in its succeeding years, and worked exhausting hours as a silent movie pianist after school to help family ends meet in the post-Revolutionary economy. His father had died in 1922 and the once comfortable Shostakovich family thereafter struggled in Russia’s new social order.
The severe restrictions placed on art by Stalin and Khrushchev also helped cause Shostakovich to become disillusioned. Always afraid of official condemnation, he followed the leads of Ludwig van Beethoven, Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, and Modest Mussorgsky by writing music with profound themes buried underneath dominant themes of a banal nature and completely opposite sentiment.
For his political safety, Shostakovich managed to keep his own voice while complying with the government’s policy of “socialist realism” – art depicting the triumph of Leninism and the complete, if contrived, optimism of Soviet life. Still, Shostakovich was disciplined by the cultural authorities on several occasions, particularly when all of the USSR’s leading composers, including Serge Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, and Nicolai Myaskovsky, were denounced for “formalism,” or decadent avant-gardism, in 1948; this coming after a period of war when artists had greater creative freedoms.
During the post-war era, Shostakovich bravely retained his fame and position as a social commentator. His output was high until the last five years of his life, when severe physical problems began to limit his movement. By that time, however, his works were already destined for immortality. He had been named First Secretary of the Soviet Composers Union, albeit against his will, and received numerous awards from both the Soviet government and organizations abroad, including the Lenin Prize, the Hero of Socialist Labor medal, and an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. And most importantly, his music was being played by orchestras and radio stations worldwide. In a strange sort of way, Shostakovich became a figure of artistic wisdom after years as an Enemy of the People.
Shostakovich’s music, a collection of works providing the landscape of a torn man, is baldly Russian in style, yet diverse. It contains memorable themes stemming from Russian folk and popular song, jazz, and the traditions of Johann Sebastian Bach. As the musical voice of Soviet life, his output is extensive, having written 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, various other chamber works, concerti, song cycles, solo piano pieces, operas, ballets, and film scores, the last of which provided a decent income while on thin political ice.
His 5th Symphony (premiered 1937), ironically subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism,” was hailed by bureaucrats and audiences alike, and remains his most popular work; it was the first symphony purely “Soviet” in style. Also noteworthy are his 4th Symphony (premiered 1962), which he kept from performance for almost 30 years; Symphony #7 (Leningrad, 1942), a massive work dedicated to his home city and its resistance to the Nazi invasion; Symphony #8 (1943); Symphony #10 (1953), considered his best-written symphony; Symphony #11 (The Year 1905, 1957); and Symphony #14 (1969), a setting of death poetry including Lorca and Apollonaire.
Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (1934), after a naturalistic story by Leskov, initially brought difficulties with Stalin but is of considerable renown today. His ballets The Golden Age (1930), Bolt (1931), and The Limpid Brook (1935) are witty.
Shostakovich’s earlier works make use of the Mahlerian orchestra, but as he grew older and more reflective about life’s possibilities, he used the chamber scale a greater deal. Most notable from his chamber catalogue are the Piano Quintet (1940), Piano Trio #1 (1943), String Quartet #8 (1960), and String Quartet #15 (1974), all bright mirrors of Shostakovich’s psyche.
Shostakovich died on August 9, 1975, in Moscow. He was given a state burial and recognized by the world press as an outstanding composer of our time. Unlike other Soviet composers who benefited from political fortune rather than artistic merit, Shostakovich remains an international phenomenon whose music is performed constantly. His commitment to inspiring listeners holds true, even after monkey-wrenching by politicians who value conformity over self-expression.