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Last Updated: Monday, 25 September 2006, 06:27 GMT 07:27 UK
A century of Shostakovich
By Lawrence Pollard
Arts correspondent, BBC News

The world is marking the centenary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer described by many critics as the greatest of the 20th Century.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich died in 1975

Born in St Petersburg, Shostakovich lived all his adult life under Soviet communism, and argument over his precise relationship to political authority - whether he was an enthusiastic communist or a subtle dissident - has sometimes overshadowed his musical achievement.

In the mid-1930s, Shostakovich scored a great success with his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Then one day in early 1936 it was viciously attacked in the newspaper Pravda in an review entitled "Muddle not Music" attributed to Stalin himself.

People who want to interpret his true meanings are only speculating at best
Mohamad, Chicago

At a time when artists who displeased authority were liable to simply disappear, Shostakovich was in great danger.

But he survived, possibly because of his popular work for Soviet films and propaganda.

Radical reinterpretation

By the time of his death in 1975 he was seen as a solid Soviet artist but a few years later his reputation was turned on its head by the publication of a highly controversial account of his life called Testimony.

This claimed Shostakovich secretly hated Stalin and the Soviet system, and that his works held hidden dissident meanings.

Critics in the West seized on this new image of an anti-communist Shostakovich but others pointed out how hard it is to interpret private motives under a climate of fear.

Certainly Shostakovich was lucky to work in a wordless abstract medium, where interpretation is strongly subjective.

It does appear at least some of his original audience did find oppositional power in his work but, as a member of the party and the Supreme Soviet, Shostakovich also allowed his name to be put on denunciations of dissidents.

Certainly no composer has undergone so radical a re-evaluation.

But what cannot be disputed is that his 15 symphonies and smaller-scale chamber music make him a musical giant of his time, whatever the political meanings we find in them.


Your comments:

Shostakovich was a musical genius. Who cares if he was a communist or a dissident?
Gyuri, Budapest, Hungary

Discovering this man at music A-level eventually brought me here to Russia to teach English. It's not without reason he's considered by many to be the greatest 20th century composer. Aside from his music - a sound so individual and paradoxical in its complex yet seemingly accessible, melodic nature - he would spend his nights outside his house, suitcases packed, so that were he to be arrested he would spare his family the sight of it. And who else, having been pressured by Stalin to deliver a Beethoven-esq 9ty symphony of grandness and positivity, would have written such a small, jokey work dominated by cheeky woodwinds? Now that's bravery. DSCH - we salute you.
Andrew, Nizhnii Novgorod, Russia

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, based on Leskov's 19th century novella, is a pretty strong denunciation of the class struggle: the choice is indeed quite revealing. But the truth about Shostakovich's convictions is much easier to discern: simply close your eyes and absorb the music. When it isn't a lament, it's a dirge; when it isn't either of those, it is all about wrenching pain, terrifying regret, shattering worlds. This is not the music to celebrate the proletarian "paradise" -- not at all! He was without question a genius, no less than Stravinsky or Rachmaninoff, or Prokofiev, but instead of conveying a "message," he allowed the audience of his contemporaries to feel more "normal" for feeling so much pain -- in a time when to acknowledge inner pain, the extreme grief locked up far from the gaze of the police state which could easily rub you out just for regretting its existence, was in and of itself an act of supreme defiance. Was he the last great composer? Of course not! Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerrard - certainly, writing for paying clients - and a plethora of other serious and brilliant composers is out there amongst the 6.5 billion souls around you...
Maria Amadei Ashot, Berkeley, California, US A

Shostakovich is my musical idol and hero. Whatever his political views were, they will never affect the pure genius of his music. The 11th symphony is my favourite of all the classical music I've heard. Delicate emotions, and sheer power; balanced with perfection is his music. I hope from this day on, that his music is thrust into world wide recognition: to be spoken of with the likes of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven in the same breath. And I wish the same for one of his students, prodigy Georgy Sviridov... Thank you, maestro.
David Eckles, Bletchley, England

I can only echo the message previous postings and say that I have never understood why the question of Shostakovich's opinion of the Soviet system of the day has any bearing on evaluating the quality of his music, yet the Testimony furore has consistently eclipsed any debate about the composer's artistic legacy. For me the real mystery is the unevenness of his work. How could a masterpiece like the Tenth Symphony have come from the same mind that spawned such dreadful turkeys as the Seventh and Twelfth?
Glyn, Hsinchu, Taiwan

I got hooked on Shostakovich at the ripe age of 10 when a friend played a recording of the "Polka" from "The Golden Age." It was like nothing I had ever heard before, and I knew I had to hear more. This led to a life-long fascination with things Soviet and things Russian. Shostakovich is the quintessential "Soviet" composer.
Stephen Ingle, Norwich, Connecticut, USA

Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues for the piano are masterful works that are only now beginning to get the attention they deserve. His music, beautiful, timeless, and distinctly "national" in character if not "nationalist," is a great gift to humanity. Music historians will probably fall into different "camps" when it comes to deciding the great composer of the era. Copland, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev, and even Sibelius, Gershwin, and Cage have their die-hards, which is part of what makes the 20th century so messy, eclectic, and wonderful for music-lovers. Shostakovich's greatness is shown by the fact that his voice sings clearly and distinctly above the 20th century's cacophony of divergent styles and personalities.
Ryan, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Shostakovich does not need be anti-Soviet or anti-communism to be recognized as one the greatest classical composers ever. He is, and will be, remembered amongst the ranks of Beethoven and Mozart. I resent the British and Western arrogance which can only see him as a great composer only if he is considered to be against communism or Soviet system. After all communism and Soviet system produced a great number of extra-ordinary artists and athletes. Unlike the British colonists, or the west in general, who have brought slavery, oppression and war.
Mahmood, Toronto, Canada

The debate about politics and meaning is usually peripheral with music. As one of the respondents put it, music is about the response. Inspiration, enlightenment, truth and so on can be found in DS's music by people of all political and philosophical perspectives. But almost all agree in his genius and how wonderful it is to surrender one's intellect and just listen.
Killion Nine, Sydney, Australia

Shostakovich is a cool dude~ so yea - don't argue with me coz im russian so yea - i know him better~! lol
Youlia , Yuzhno Sakhalinsk, Russia

Dmitri Shostakovich is my favourite composer of all time. It is sad that discussions of his work often centre more on the politics of his day than his music. But perhaps that cannot be avoided, given that his major works were composed in the shadow of World War II and the Cold War. And I remember a time when it was not "politically correct" here in the USA to love his music. He was, after all, a "Communist". But let's put politics aside and remember 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, two cello concertos, two violin concertos, two piano trios, a piano quintet, and the magnificent set of 24 Preludes and Fugues.
Ed Borasky, Beaverton, Oregon, USA

I know of no other composer who on the one hand, managed to summarise several hundred years of musical tradition so succinctly, and on the other, to present the world with such a variety of fresh, modern, original, yet approachable compositions. His piano works are exquisite. Communist or not, his music definitely evokes many aspects of the Soviet era.
Matthew Bounds, Sydney Australia

I inherited a love of Shostakovich's music from my father and there is certainly no 20th Century composer whom I admire as much. I cannot understand how one could say that music can have no meaning, not that Shostakovich's work was not political. If nothing else, the inclusion of Jewish songs in his music during a time when Stalin's anti-Semitism was the official line cannot be seen as apolitical. I have noticed over the years that many of Shostakovich's detractors seem to be from the USA and often wondered if this is actually a legacy of the international political climate during Shostakovich's life and may perhaps fade as those that remember those decades fade also. Incidentally, though I enjoy most of his orchestral and chamber works, the piano quintet is perhaps my favourite piece of music by any composer.
Everard Edwards, Mildura, Australia.

Why don't you ask the man himself? He said, "Listen to my music to find out!" Such is the stuff that geniuses are made of.
Yue Kwan, Hong Kong

Bartok thought Shostakovich was extremely overrated. I agree.
Bysshe, Midwest, U.S.A.

Although some of Shostakovich's work has clear political or historical connotations, the man was a musical genius by any measure. He survived and his art flourished despite the dark horror of World War II and the Stalin/Soviet era. Comparing him to Prokofiev, Stravinsky, or the newsagent on the corner is nonsense. Just close your eyes and listen. If you cannot find 10 pieces from his work that you love, then your heart is cold, and you have my sympathy.
JG Black, Hamburg, Germany

When I was 13 I was introduced to the music of the genius. I was not knowing much of classical music but the very tone, tenor and sound of the music lifted me to an experience of divine as well as plunged me to a state of depression. The latter feeling is unexplainable.
Renganathan Vinkatachary, Bangalore, Karnataka State , INDIA

I always admired Shostakovich as a composer of the people of Russia, not the soviets. Even at the time that he made music for soviet propaganda movies there is a sense that he does it for a higher cause. I admire his patriotism which kept him in Russia while most of the other composers fled the county.
Sam, Toronto, Canada

One thing I've always wondered about since I first discovered Shostakovich several years ago is how - if at all - his music would have differed he had not had to work under constant fear of falling foul of the Soviet government. Certainly his chamber music represents the closest we have to what one might call "true" Shostakovich; it was not subjected to the same level of political scrutiny that his symphonies faced. To me it is a great pity and a loss to the world of music that one of the 20th century's greatest composers lived without anything near complete artistic freedom.
R. Maharaj, Toronto, Canada

Dmitri Shostakovich is one of my favourite composers. I am amazed that there is any debate about whether or not he was a closeted dissident. It pours forth from his music so clearly! The best example is his 9th symphony. It is so clearly a bitter and disillusioned ode to the hollow victory that was Stalin's Victory over Hitler. In it you hear a man forced to cheer at gunpoint on the surface but in desperate despair underneath. Listening to it reminds me of the Marcel Marceau mime act where he falls into panic and then despair when a happy face mask he has tried on is stuck on his face.
Alex Bunker, Helsinki Finland

There are sufficient sources outside the controversial Testimony to indicate the pain with which Shostakovich was forced to accept the titular positions in the Soviet arts leadership later in his life. People look upon his life, which traversed many cataclysms - the Revolution, the hunger and civil war that followed, Stalinism, World War II - with a Western liberal concept of "choice" completely unaware, it seems, of how different the paradigm was. Ultimately, the inspirational life and musical output of this great man is a monument to his choices, and the example he provided with his moral rectitude and the demanding standards he set for himself and the work of those around him serves as a role model for many musicians and music-lovers around the world.
Aleksandr Tsiboulski, Austin, TX, USA

Never smiled on any picture. One of the greatest and certainly most serious of all time!
wolfgang, New York City

Music, other than opera, has no meaning; it creates an emotional, or perhaps, an intellectual response. Shostakovich's music plumbs emotional depths that are extraordinary, but there is nothing discerningly political about them. His is very approachable music, which cannot be said for much of 20th century music.
Joel L. Friedlander, Syosset, New York, United States

I first discovered DS as a teenager; I must have played my copy of his 5th Symphony a hundred times! Later, I found the depth and richness of this remarkable composer - haunting symphonic works, exquisite chamber pieces, and the delightful film scores. I knew nothing of the Soviet politics of repression, the enormous pressure under which Shostakovich laboured. His work transcends his times, the political environment, and the demands of a society dictating the parameters of art to artists. Simply stated, Shostakovich is not Russian or a Soviet, he is a favourite composer.
Joan, Minneapolis, MN USA

Shostakovich was indeed one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Some of his music - the Jazz Suites, Cello Sonata - are superb. I enjoy them every time I hear them. Even his Soviet music like the Leningrad Symphony, is very good. It conveys a certain majesty of form and function.
Ayan, College Park, USA

Shostakovich was in my opinion the greatest composer of the last century and perhaps of all time as well. There is so much in his work that speaks to the breadth and diversity of human experience, that I consider it a pity to dwell on the politics surrounding his work. Shostakovich himself said that every piece of music has a universal message transcending the immediate context in which it was written. Whether listening to the late Shostakovich or his earlier works, one cannot help but be struck by his unique ability to capture all the human emotions, all the objectives we each aspire to.
Eren Tasar, Cambridge, Mass., USA

His music means love for life in all its colours, and love for truth.
Antonia, Calgary, Canada

It's quite possible that he expressed disdain toward the authorities through his music. However, it would remain unclear whether he intended his disdain for the head of state or to the system in place. People who want to interpret his true meanings are only speculating at best, and probably see in it what they want to see.
Mohamad, Chicago

I have not listened to all of Shostakovich's music because what I have heard I have disliked. At times the music makes me cringe, which could be interpreted as great skill by some. This is coming from someone however whose favourite composer is Sergei Rachmaninov, who, in my opinion, wrote the most beautiful piece of music ever created... his Symphony No 2.
Jim, North Platte, United States

Shostakovich was seen as a dissenter from the eighth symphony onward. The Russians knew this was about Soviet hardship and hated it for this reason. Regardless, one of the greatest composers of any time, and I feel lucky to be present in this year with so many wonderful tribute concerts being performed.
Tyler, Montreal, Canada

I am a committed Shostakovich admirer. His 5th and 10th are masterpieces. His chamber music is also splendid. Is he the last century's greatest composer? Certainly one of the greatest. However, I consider his fellow Russian Prokofiev, who passed away much earlier as equally great, and perhaps more original. His piano and chamber music were among the classics of the 20th century. Who else does that leave? Among other Russians, we have also have Alfred Schnittke. The 20th century also had Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartok, and of course Stravinsky for his earlier period. Is there to this day any musical landmarks like Le Sacre? Shostakovich was probably the last great symphony composer.
N. Rolland, Victoria, B.C, CANADA




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