Dmitri Shostakovich

the composer and his work





Life in outline

1906 Birth on 25 September in Saint-Petersburg.

1919 Study of piano and composition at the Conservatory in Petrograd (former Saint-Petersburg).

1926 International success of his First Symphony, while the composer is making a career as a pianist player.

1936 Harsh criticisms in the "Pravda" of his opera "Lady Macbeth", successfully played 181 times in Petrograd and Moscow in the past two years.

1937 Triumphant success of the Fifth Symphony in November. A few months ago, the composer had be questioned at a time of Stalinist political terror. The first interrogation took place on a Saturday, and he was to be interviewed again on the Monday. When he turned out, he was told the officer in charge of his case had been executed.

1942 Triumphant success of the Seventh Symphony as Soviet hymn against fascism, the first of a set three "war symphonies".

1943 Eighth Symphony portraying the people in the war gets reserved reception.

1945 Ninth Symphony, neo-classical and ironical, gets cold reception.

1948 Condemned as formalist by Jdanov.

1955 Death of Stalin, come back into political and political favour.

1975 Death on 14th August.


The composer

Dmitri Shostakovich is nowadays considered as the Beethoven of the 20th century, probably because as this famous predecessor he composed heroic works, which embody the aspirations of the people of his time, and a set of quartets in which he freely expressed his inner thoughts and feelings.

The opposition between public, official monumental works and intimate ones is typical of the composer, torn between his prominent but imposed political role in the Soviet Union, and its artistic search for independence.

This schizophrenic duality is emblematic of the entire works by Shostakovich, and it took Western countries a long time to recognise and understand it, as most people were unaware of the skill an artist had to develop to survive in the hardest times of the Soviet Union.

It was not before the release in 1979 of "Testimony, the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich" by Solomon Volkoff, that Shostakovich's role as true supporter of the Soviet regime was widely reconsidered.


The Eighth Symphony

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote in 1956 in one issue of "Sovietskaia Mouzika" (quoted in and translated from French book "Dmitri Chostakovitch" by Krzysztof Meyer, Fayard, page 285) : "I deeply regret that the Eighth Symphony, in which I put so much of my heart and reason, has not been played for long years. I tried to express in this work the experiences the people had gone through, and catch the terrible tragedy of the war. The Eighth Symphony, written in the course of 1943, is an answer to what happened in this difficult time ; this seems to me perfectly justified.

Indeed, the premiere on 4th November 1943 in Moscow of the Eighth Symphony conducted by Evgeni Mravinski got a reserved reception due to its tragic tone, insufficiently balanced by a conclusion tinged with unanswered resignation.

The Ninth Symphony, premiered on 3rd November 1945 is a short, neo-classical piece with grotesque motifs typical of Shostakovich, which critics and authorities disliked as they were expecting a triumphant symphony asserting the supremacy of the USSR in response to the grandeur of Beethoven's own Ninth Symphony. The courage of the composer must be stressed, who gave up his initial project of a grandiose symphony, a draft which would have pleased the soviet officials but would have been a degrading challenge to the universal message of the "Ode to Joy". This artistic and political manifesto led him to his disgrace until Stalin's death ten years later. See also what Barshai the conductor says about this Symphony on DSCH Journal.

Composed in only two months, just after the Stalingrad battle, the Eighth Symphony is considered as one among Shostakovich's highest masterpieces, if not his very summit, and a major work in the 20th century.

Patrick Szersnovicz wrote in "Le Monde de la Musique" of June 2000 (p. 38) : "Formerly titled "Stalingrad", the work which remained underestimated for a long time, is crucial in Shostakovich's work. Conceived during summer 1943, this monument lasts more than one hour and nowadays appears as a totality where the formal design and the expression ally perfectly, a strange and haughty geyser morning for bloodshed and ruins in an abstract form nevertheless. The most astonishing features of the Eighth is neither the violence of the denunciation nor the rejection of war, but the almost animal raising of a will, the refinement of passions, the boundless song, and once at the top of terrifying progressions, an outstanding horizon which remind us the beauty of life and how future is demanding.

The expressive power of this work is still sharply felt at the beginning of the XXIst century, as demonstrated by the audience of a concert by Bernard Haitink conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Jacques Schmitt (read his review in French), musical correspondent for the Swiss press told the author of this site : "I was astonished to see how many people left the concert hall during the performance of this outstanding 8th by  Shostakovich in Gstaad. It was certainly not, for most of them, because of the dissonances, but I believe, more simply because for some of them, the power of this music was simply impossible. As certain people look away from violent scenes because they can't see the reality. Very much like the ostrich who put its head in the sand in case of danger. This said, are we voyeurs?"



The discography of Dmitri Shostakovich's orchestral works has been of an outstanding quality from the beginning, thanks to Russian conductors as Evgeni Mravinski or Kiril Kondrachin, or the German conductor Kurt Sanderling who had been working in USSR as soon as 1936.

Western conductors as Bernard Haitink or Leonard Berstein have also made great recordings, which are highly praised in Anglo-Saxons countries and perhaps even more than the Russians'.

Nevertheless, the Eighth Symphony is keeping a special relationship with Evgeni Mravinski. Dmitri Shostakovich dedicated him the Symphony, the only one among fifteen to be dedicated to a person.

At least three recordings by Mravinski have been released, all live concerts in 1947, 1960 and 1982, all first class, with the latter having a better sound and finding unanimous favour with critics.

In the French magazine "Le Monde de la Musique", Hugues Mousseau wrote in 1989, when the 1982 recording was released that "the absolute osmosis between the work, the conductor and the orchestra makes of this recording the most important ever devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich. More, it is one of the very few which can be considered as ultimate."

You will find analysis of this recording on the DSCH Journal (including why the Russian Disc release is better than the Philips') and on


Around the Eighth

Having discovered the Eighth Symphony, three works can be recommended as further steps :

- The Tenth Symphony, maybe his second most important orchestral work, more abstract than the Eighth.

- The Fifth Symphony, the most popular and the most accessible indeed.

- The Eighth Quartet, sorrowful autobiography and outstanding testimony on a time and a life.



Dmitri Shostakovich's life and works are well documented on the Internet, but two of them are a good starting point :

Dmitri Shostakovich International Association, France

DSCH Journal, USA & France