Shostakovich: The Soviet Era’s Greatest Composer

Shostakovich: The Soviet Era’s Greatest Composer

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich

As we wrote about a few weeks ago, one of the most interesting aspects of music history is hearing stories of beauty created through chaos. Hannu Lintu brought Sibelius’ Patriotic Second Symphony the energy it commanded this past weekend, and our first classical concert of April will tap into another historical struggle – the people of the Soviet Union and the restraints put upon them by Joseph Stalin’s regime.

Although he’s considered the greatest composer from the Soviet Era, Dmitri Shostakovich’s history was a rocky one. Very popular in the 1930s, the composer was suddenly condemned by his fellow countrymen and labeled as an “Enemy of the State” for writing music deemed dangerous. He composed his Fifth Symphony, in essence, to get back into the “good graces” of the Soviet government. The subtitle of the symphony — “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism” — spoke to the government and gained him his popularity again.

In reality, the work had subtexts of criticism, even if the Soviets were oblivious to it. Shostakovich even said of the Symphony years later, “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth Symphony. You’ve got to be a complete oaf not to hear it … The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.’ You get up, stunned, saying, ‘My business is rejoicing, my business is rejoicing …’ ”

Had Shostakovich not lived with the struggles he did, we would not have this wonderful work. Can you imagine a world in which beauty was created only on the surface? …

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