Dmitri Shostakovich's beginnings were progressive. Brought up in the enlightened city of St Petersburg, he entered the Petrograd Conservatory in 1919, where he studied piano with Leonid Nikolayev until 1923 and composition until 1925 with Alexander Glazunov. Although Shostakovich didn't begin formal piano lessons until he was nine, his musical studies progressed so much, that within ten years he had produced his First Symphony, which won him instant fame when premiered in 1926.
When Stalin introduced his First Five-Year Plan in 1928, an iron hand fastened on cultural activity which was soon under tight central control. For a time, Shostakovich resisted, tapping into Alban Berg’s expressionism for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and composing on a Mahlerian scale for his Fourth Symphony. But state tolerance of artistic freedom was short-lived. Working under a censorious and often unpredictable Soviet regime, Shostakovich was required to write music that would please Party officials, keeping under wraps anything deemed unsuitable for the popular masses.
A welcome political relaxation came after Stalin’s death in 1953. Yet with the death of his first wife and the failure of a second marriage, Shostakovich sometimes seemed less certain of his creative direction. An exception is the Tenth Symphony and the tightly conceived First Cello Concerto, written for Mstislav Rostropovich. The choral Thirteenth Symphony completes a symphonic trilogy on life in Russia and the Soviet Union with an explicitly sceptical conclusion. Although Shostakovich had at last been persuaded to join the Communist Party, the conformist quality of the music in fact gives maximal exposure to forthright poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. These condemn Russian anti-Semitism, the police state, the privations of Soviet womanhood and the pressures on the creative artist.
Despite his appearance as being very much the establishment figure, his creative projects became ever more personal. He shifted away from symphonies and the film work that kept food on the table, in favour of chamber music and song cycles. Communicating keenly, but in an increasingly enigmatic manner, these pieces draw on precedents set by Schoenberg and Britten as well as the work of his many composition pupils. One musical code remains constant, however. Shostakovich’s personal musical motto, derived from the German transliteration of his name: Dmitri SCHostakovich or DSCH (the German note names for D-E flat-C-B), results in his frequent use of the eerily unsettling four-note sequence.
Shostakovich's music was intimately tied to events around him, yet a true understanding of his artistic aims remains elusive. Regardless, Shostakovich’s oeuvre, which pulls together irony and a musical language of colossal expressive force, has moved from the periphery to the very centre of Western musical life.