The Bright Stream
As a composer, Shostakovich’s creative career can be divided
into three periods: early (including the Fourth Symphony), mature (through
Symphony No. 13 until 1966), and late (the last
As Shostakovich continued his graduate studies at the Conservatory,
his works already showed a new musical idiom that reflected modern trends
in west European music. Many of Shostakovich’s early works were
hailed as major achievements of socialist construction -- in particular,
his second and third symphonies, the opera Nos (The Nose), the ballet
Zolotoy vek (The Golden Age), a film score, incidental music to
Klop (The Flea), and the opera Ledi Makbet Mtsenskovo uyezda
(Lady McBeth of the Mtsensk District). When this last work -- with
the Fourth Symphony considered the most ambitious of his early output
-- was suddenly and inexplicably denounced by the Soviets in the newspaper
Pravda, Shostakovich responded by composing his Fifth Symphony.
This symphony, triumphantly received and to this day
Hitler’s invasion in 1941 spurred Shostakovich into an important creative effort. It was during these war years that the composer wrote his seventh and eighth symphonies. The end of the war, however, brought tightened ideological and artistic controls, and many important artists, including Shostakovich and Prokofiev, were attacked and rebuked for their musical style. In an effort to comply with these controls, Shostakovich began working in two musical idioms -- one simple and accessible that conformed with Soviet wishes, and the other complex and abstract that satisfied his own artistic standards. Shostakovich withheld several works composed in the second style until after 1953, when Stalin’s death brought about a relaxation of cultural regimentation.
After an eight-year hiatus, Shostakovich produced his Tenth Symphony, hailed at home and abroad as one of his great masterpieces. With Prokofiev’s death in 1953, he had achieved the unofficial position as grand master of Soviet music. Surprisingly, the composer did not, however, take the lead in liberalization of the arts, even thought there was a strong trend in that direction within the Soviet Union. Indeed, Shostakovich became more conservative, praising the government and speaking out against the musical avant garde, and his Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies were prototypical of the Soviet realist style.
In 1966, he developed a serious heart ailment from which he never fully recovered. Although further disabled by severe arthritis, Shostakovich’s creative output was never affected, and during this time he composed several important works, including the final two symphonies. While Shostakovich continued to speak out against the 12-note serial system of composition, he wrote in a much more advanced musical idiom in these late works.
Shostakovich belonged to the first generation of Russian composers
educated entirely under
Shostakovich will be remembered primarily as a composer of symphonies,
and with Stravinsky and Prokofiev, he represents the culmination of
20th century Russian music. But, unlike his two older contemporaries,
Shostakovich is alone in having composed his entire output within the