Few major composers have been as shaped by the political climate in which they lived as Dmitri Shostakovich. The young, modernist composer of the 1930s first fell foul of the Soviet hierarchy when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – an initial success – was later denounced in Pravda, ostensibly at the behest of Joseph Stalin, as “muddle instead of music”. Shostakovich had to react to circumstances: the premiere of his Fourth Symphony was shelved for three decades; his Fifth was seen to toe the party line. 

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Dmitri Shostakovich
© Public domain | Deutsche Fotothek

Shostakovich wrote his fair share of propaganda works, conforming to Soviet socialist realist ideals, but he also came to be viewed as a quiet rebel. He even developed the use of the motif D-S-C-H (D, E flat, C, B which, in the German notation D, Es, C, H signalled his name) to stamp his musical monogram into many of his scores. His postwar Symphony no. 9 (1945) did not meet the expectations associated with great composers’ Ninths, as if thumbing his nose at Communist Party leaders. 

In 1948, Shostakovich was denounced in the Zhdanov Decree as an enemy of the people for writing “formalist” music. Anticipating arrest by the KGB, he kept a packed suitcase by his front door. Stalin’s death in 1953 marked something of a political and cultural thaw for artists, although Shostakovich again fell foul of the authorities in 1962 when he set Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s texts about the genocide of the Jews at Babyn Yar in his Thirteenth Symphony.

Shostakovich playing an entr'acte from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

There was a lighter side to Shostakovich. He could write popular tunes with style and wit and he greatly enjoyed watching football; he supported Zenit Leningrad and was even a qualified referee. He wrote a ballet The Age of Gold, which is about a Soviet football team. 

Since his death, Shostakovich’s music – and his words as allegedly dictated to Solomon Volkov in the controversial book Testimony – have been the subject of furious debate. Did he uphold Communist ideals, or was he a closet dissident?

1Symphony no. 10 in E minor

The Tenth is one of the best known of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies, not least for the aggressive Scherzo, “a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking” according to the composer (via Testimony), and the powerful use of the D-S-C-H motto which eventually triumphs in the finale, a personal victory over oppression. 

2Symphony no. 4 in C minor

The year after his very public slapdown in Pravda, an unrepentant Shostakovich worked on his Fourth Symphony (“I don’t write for Pravda, but for myself.”). But shortly before its scheduled premiere in December 1936, he withdrew it, possibly under pressure. It was not performed until 1961, by which time it was seen as the missing link in his creative output. It’s a huge work, on a Mahlerian scale, raw, bloodthirsty, dripping with sarcasm. The finale’s ghostly coda, though, is mesmeric – a solo trumpet laments over the eerie death knell of harp and celesta chimes. 

3String Quartet no. 8 in C minor

Shostakovich’s fingerprints are heard in every movement of his Eighth String Quartet, composed over three days in 1960 and dedicated “to the victims of fascism and the war”. It is one of the darkest of his 15 string quartets, deeply personal to the composer, who reportedly buried his head in his hands and wept when the Borodin Quartet played it to him in his Moscow home. 

4Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Shostakovich’s opera, based on Nikolai Leskov’s novella, tells the brutal tale of the unhappily married Katerina Izmailova, who poisons her father-in-law and whose lover kills her husband. Sentenced to a Siberian labour camp, Katerina comes to an icy end, but not before plunging a fellow convict into the river. The action is graphic… and so is the score, which contains one of the most vivid depictions of sex ever set as music. In 1935, the opera was denounced in Pravda and banned from public performance in the Soviet Union until 1961, when Shostakovich revised it under the title Katerina Izmailova.

5Symphony no. 5 in D minor

Shostakovich answered the censure of Lady Macbeth with his Fifth Symphony, described by the press as “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism”. The work was seen as Shostakovich’s political rehabilitation, populist and with an uplifting, triumphant ending. But is it triumphant? That can depend on how it is conducted. A solid trudge reinforces the “forced rejoicing” school of thought, a hollow victory, but Shostakovich approved of Leonard Bernstein’s brisk tempo, which does sound genuinely jubilant. 

6Piano Concerto no. 1 in C minor

Shostakovich was a fine pianist and premiered the First Piano Concerto himself. His piano writing suited his style of playing, which tended to treat the piano as a percussive instrument. The concerto includes a prominent solo role for trumpet, especially active in the irreverent finale, with its helter-skelter chase. 

7Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor

Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio was written during the Second World War, dedicated to his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky who died during its composition. It is a dark, often sombre work, containing a bitingly sardonic Scherzo as well as a Jewish folk melody in the finale that Shostakovich would later use in his Eighth String Quartet. 

8Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major

The First Cello Concerto was composed in 1959 for Mstislav Rostropovich, who learnt the challenging work in just four days. An adaptation of Shostakovich’s four-note D-S-C-H motto appears right at the beginning, recurring throughout the concerto. The long cadenza, developing material from the second movement, stands as a movement in its own right. The finale contains a distorted version of Suliko, Stalin’s favourite song, which Shostakovich had used in Rayok, his parody of the Soviet system. Here, Rostropovich himself performs the work:

9Symphony no. 15 in A major

Shostakovich’s final symphony is an enigmatic work, full of self-references as well as quotations from works as diverse as Götterdämmerung and the overture to William Tell, leading to much speculation as to their meaning. The galloping first movement has a sense of playfulness, but a brass chorale in the second heralds a funereal feel. The work closes with chattering percussion, echoing the Scherzo of his Fourth Symphony, petering out into nothing. 


10The Bolt

Shostakovich composed several lighter works and ballet scores, including The Bolt, a satirical work in which lazy factory workers attempt to sabotage the machinery by jamming it with a bolt. It was one of the works banned after the Pravda denunciation. In 2005, Alexei Ratmansky choreographed revived the ballet at the Bolshoi.