Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906 and died in Moscow, in August 1975. His name in the New Groves is rendered as Shostakovich, Dmitry (Dmitriyevich). For no apparent reason, therefore, the patronymic is given in brackets, indicating optionality: they don't do this for Bortnyansky, for example. This sort of inconsistency with Russian names is not exactly unusual, unfortunately. His first name is also problematic: the New Groves is evidently comfortable with 'Dmitry', spelled with a 'y' -yet, Wikipedia prefers 'Dmitri' with an 'i' (and so do most CD covers in my collection). Even his last name is up for grabs: whilst New Groves (and Wikipedia) is comfortable with "Shostakovich", different orthographies will suggest "Shostakovitch", with an extra 't'. So: the question of how to catalogue him can be answered in various ways and pub fights might break out over the matter!

On this site, I'm going to dispense with the the 'y' version of his first name, despite the normally authoritative New Groves' strictures. Ignoring Groves is unusual for me, but that spelling is undoubtedly less common now than it used to be and the 'i' version is generally seen on CDs, encyclopedia articles and on the front page of his scores. For similar reasons of increasingly popular convention, I'm going to dispense with the extra 't' in his surname. The patronymic being optional (according to the New Grove, who I will follow on the point!) means that we end up with a catalogue entry of plain Dmitri Shostakovich.

Regardless of how you spell him, however, Shostakovich's music is known for its emotional depth, political undertones, and innovative compositional techniques. His works span various genres, including symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and film scores. A key defining feature of all of his music, in whatever genre, is its ability to convey a wide range of emotions, as it oscillates between moments of dark despair, biting sarcasm, and profound introspection. This emotional depth is evident in works such as Symphony No. 5, where the music moves from brooding introspection to soaring triumph, reflecting the struggles and triumphs of the human spirit.

His music also showcases his mastery of orchestration. He skillfully manipulates the timbral and textural qualities of different instruments and sections of the orchestra to create a rich and diverse sonic palette. This is particularly evident in the Symphony No. 7, where he effectively employs brass and percussion to depict the horrors of war,.

Another notable aspect of Shostakovich's music is his incorporation of folk elements. Drawing from Russian folk music traditions, he infused his compositions with melodies, rhythms, and harmonies reminiscent of his cultural heritage. This can be heard in works like the Suite for Variety Orchestra, where lively dance-like rhythms and catchy melodies evoke a sense of joy and celebration. Documentary makers the world over have plundered this particular treasure chest repeatedly in the past couple of decades: the music clearly speaks well to a lot of people!

Shostakovich's music also serves as a political commentary and subtle means of dissent against the Soviet regime. Living under the oppressive rule of Stalin and subsequent leaders, he had to navigate the restrictions imposed by the state-controlled art system known as Socialist Realism. While some of his works were praised by the regime for their nationalistic character, others were met with censorship and criticism. The classic example of this is, perhaps, his fifth symphony, composed during a period of intense political scrutiny. It is often interpreted as a response to the regime's demand for "accessible" and "optimistic" music (and potentially a way of saving his life after Stalin had personally criticised him for his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk the previous year. Yet, he cleverly disguises his dissent within the framework of this seemingly conformist symphony, infusing it with moments of biting irony and subversive undertones: one can thus read the ending of the symphony as publicly triumphal, or privately sarcastic.

Away from the brashness of the symphonies, the string quartets can offer a particularly intimate and introspective look into his personal and political struggles. These works are characterized by their intense emotional expression, haunting melodies, and intricate counterpoint. The String Quartet No. 8, in particular, is often regarded as a self-reflective work, as Shostakovich quotes his own musical motifs and incorporates autobiographical elements.

Overall, Shostakovich's music is a testament to his creative genius and his ability to navigate the treacherous political landscape of the Soviet Union. Through his compositions, he expressed the human condition, challenged political oppression, and left a lasting impact on the world of classical music. His music continues to be celebrated for its emotional power, technical brilliance, and profound social commentary, solidifying his place as one of the most significant composers of the 20th century.

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Music Plays from my collection
(since January 9th 2021)

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Date of PlayTime of PlayGenreCompositionLengthPlay Count