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Classical Composers A-Z: Dimitry Shostakovich

Peter Wintersgill presents a potted biography of Dimitry Shostakovich, who some consider to be the greatest Twentieth Century composer.

25th September, 1906, in St. Petersburg.

Consultant engineer, expert amateur singer.

Piano teacher.

Middle child of three - elder sister Maria, younger sister Zoya.


Piano lessons from Mother at nine, then from Glasser School of Music at 10, wrote first piano work also at 10.

Entered St. Petersburg Conservatoire at 13, wrote first symphony as graduation exercise at 19. Wrote first opera The Nose (1928) and first ballet The Age of Gold (1930), which was a satire of the League of Nations. His second opera Lady MacBeth of Mtensk (1932) was denounced by the Communist Party as "musically brutal - Chaos instead of music".

Early Adult Life
He withdrew his fourth symphony and wrote his fifth, in which he apologised in a subtitle "an artist's reply to just criticism" (1937). This was a great success at the time, and has remained popular ever since. He was appointed to the staff of the Conservatoire, and taught composition there from 1937 - 1941. In his youth he had persistent TB of his glands and was in and out of hospital.

Later Adult Life
During the War he acted as fire fighter at the siege of Leningrad in 1941, when he wrote his Seventh Symphony (The Leningrad). During and after the War he wrote mainly film music and patriotic cantatas, also the 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano (1950).

In 1948 he was relieved of his teaching post at the Conservatoire.

In 1953 Stalin died. This was a turning point, after which censorship was less strict. That year he wrote his large-scale Tenth Symphony, which was tragic and rather personal.

After this came his finest works, Symphonies 11-15, string quartets 6-15 and two cello concertos.

A great admirer of Mahler, his 13th and 14th Symphonies were based on his style. The 13th (1962), based on poems about the Nazi massacre of the Jews, is choral, while the 14th (1969) with soloists, is based on poems about death.

He visited England twice (in 1958 and 1974) and became friendly with Britten, whom he admired. Some of his finest works were the First Violin Concerto, the First and Second Cello Concertos, written for Rostropovitch and the humorous Fifteenth Symphony (1971).

The Eighth String Quartet (arranged for orchestra as the Chamber Symphony 1960) was also dedicated to victims of Nazi persecution.

In 1969 he had a severe heart attack, after which his health was poor until his death on 9th August, 1975, in Moscow from motor neurone disease. This is a wasting muscular disease, which prevented him from playing the piano.

International Peace prize, People's Artist of the U.S.S.R., and Hon. Mus. Doc. Oxon.


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