Dmitri Sostakovic

(25 September 1906 — 09 August 1975)

Gianandrea Gavazzeni was amongst the first – in fact as early as 1937 - to recognise an essential characteristic in the music of Shostakovich: the grafting of some of the most innovative features of contemporary music onto a foundation of Russian Romanticism that had as its principal exponent Tchaikovsky but that also intersected with the music of Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Gui and Glazunov. Most tellingly Gavazzeni showed how this process of assimilation tended to regenerate the inherited formal frameworks in question, rendering their Romantic lustre leaner and furnishing them with a new rhetoric and a unique expressive versatility.

Still today it is these traits in Shostakovich’s music that seem to bear the clearest mark of modernity. In his symphonies, quartets and concertos for solo instrument, indeed even in much of his music for the cinema, juxtapositions of heterogeneous material are arranged in highly unified and cohesive structures; it is as though a Constructivist imperative sought to conceal and protect a nucleus of inner tragedy – a nucleus which nonetheless periodically gleams through the fine handwork of the composition, thereby underpinning its inexorable poetic impact.

Many elements come together to sustain the impelling creative force of the work: in the first place, Stravinsky, Hindemith and Central European Neo-objectivism and Neo-classicism in general; then, the continuous play of timbric dissociation, the breadth of the orchestral tessitura and a harmonic language oriented variously - in line with the unpredictable geniality of invention - towards polytonality, atonality or a more reassuring harmonic cadence. Similarly, the exuberance of the melodic and rhythmic ideas narrows down at times into a sharp-edged linearity, even of a Cubist bent; at other times it finds release in an anguished lyrical rotundity; or alternatively, it can surface in Jazz-like inflections, folk themes or citations inserted almost as though in a collage, like the insertion from Rossini’s William Tell in the 15th Symphony. Even the literature in which the composer sought inspiration: as well as the Russians - from Pushkin to Gogol, to Dostoyevsky, even up to Marina Tsvetaeva - Shostakovich drew on a vast array of other writing: Shakespeare, Rilke, Lorca, Apollinaire, Yiddish poetry, Japanese opera.

A modernism, then, that is both self-evident and explicit, especially in the first decade of the composer’s creative life, from the 1st Symphony up to the 4th, composed between 1935 and 1936. Then, in the years immediately after, there followed compositions marked by a greater degree of classicism, at times even monumental and celebratory in character, partly in line with the aesthetic requirements of Soviet politics. Later still, in the years following the war, in conjunction with the post-Stalinist “thaw” and the arrival of international notoriety, came structures of a less dense form, accompanied by a more intense lyricism and a more marked interest in the voice. To this latter period belong some of the Jewish songs and the lyric music on texts by Marina Tsvetaeva and Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Attune by its very nature to the potential of mime, Shostakovich’s music readily lent itself to the theatre. Amongst his operas it was Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District that launched the young composer onto the international scene. The characteristics of Shostakovich’s early style along with a certain taste he had for the ironic grimace and the music of the country fair came together to illuminate the strains of violence in the personality of the central character, Katerina lzmailova, who reacts to the oppressive nature of a narrow-minded provincial bourgeois morality initially by committing a series of desperate crimes and then by committing suicide. The alternating fortunes that Lady Macbeth had replicated the entire trajectory of Shostakovich’s complex and traumatic relationship with the Soviet establishment: initially greeted with great enthusiasm at its premiere in 1934, later, in the course of the hardening of Stalinist political culture, the opera was savagely attacked, only to be rehabilitated once again in the sixties and consigned definitively to the history of 20th century music, where Shostakovich today holds a place of prime importance.