Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the most highly regarded and controversial composers in the twentieth century. He began his artistic career during the first half of the 20th century at a time of increased national diversity in music. Twentieth century nationalism was distinguished by its inclusion of folk material into more traditional styles. In Shostakovich’s music, however, nationalism is represented on a far more personal level that directly reflects the composer’s experiences under the Soviet regime. This is an important departure from the norm which deserves separate study. The following is an overview of Shostakovich’s musical and political history and a description of how this history influenced his musical output.

Born in 1906, Shostakovich grew up in St. Petersburg in a time of increasing tension between the people and the government. At age 13, he began attending the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he composed his First Symphony for his graduation piece in 1926 (Wilson 2-55). By this time, Iosef Stalin was rapidly rising to power. The brief period of relative cultural freedom between the Civil War that followed the Revolution and the start of the first Five-Year Plan was coming to an end. After his graduation, Shostakovich immediately proved himself to be among the most talented Russian musicians, going on to write the surrealist (and poorly received) opera The Nose (1927-28), as well as film music and ballets. However, organizations like the RAPM (All Union Association of Proletarian Musicians) insisted that Soviet composers write music that had a ‘social message and be accessible to the wide masses’ (Wilson 79). Although Shostakovich actively avoided this and other similar groups, he was still obliged to turn out several works which fit their standards (i.e., the Second and Third Symphonies). Even these efforts were criticized. Far more serious was the charge of ‘formalism’ that was regularly heaped on Shostakovich starting with The Nose. In true Stalinist fashion, ‘formalism’ had no official definition, being merely anything the RAPM or various Party officials disliked (Wilson 79-85) - the equivalent of ‘anti-Bolshevism’. A composer described as having ‘formalist tendencies’ was at the least expected to self-denounce, and could be sent to Siberia. Although Shostakovich was never sent to the camps, he was later forced to condemn himself publicly and listen to others malign him viciously. For the time being, though, he remained popular.

In 1936, an article appeared in Pravda entitled ‘Muddle Instead of Music’. It was a tirade against Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. The opera was accused of being ‘naturalistic’, ‘formalistic’ and generally unmusical; the review was rumored to have been written by Stalin himself. This, along with another article ten days later about his ballet The Limpid Stream, placed Shostakovich’s career into serious jeopardy (Wilson 127-130). Pieces such as The Nose and Lady Macbeth were banned, and the composer was forced to cancel the scheduled première of his Fourth Symphony (Wilson 139-140). Shostakovich was characterized as an errant formalist enemy of the people and was unable to earn money composing. In 1937, he was compelled to write the Fifth Symphony (Wilson 151), a work which has a far more traditional form and harmony than the Fourth. One of this symphony’s main attractions to the Party was its grandiose, ‘heroic’ finale, although the slow movement caused large-scale weeping in the hall. In any case, his livelihood was restored. He continued to oblige the authorities with such works as his Seventh Symphony (1941), purported to be a depiction of the Nazi invasion and defeat at the hands of the Soviets (and is not nearly as interesting as most of his other works). However, Shostakovich slipped into trouble again with his Eighth Symphony (1943), which is much darker and generally completely opposite to the Seventh. Instead of a great victory, it is a requiem, which garnered much rebuke for the composer’s ‘pessimistic outlook’. Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, written immediately following the end of the war, was subjected to even greater criticism. To celebrate the defeat of Hitler, the Soviets wanted music that was even more victorious and banal than the Seventh, with a large chorus singing Party-approved texts and a duration of an hour or more. The general wish was for Shostakovich to create a successor to Beethoven’s Ninth. The symphony that appeared, however, was anything but. Lasting just over twenty minutes in performance, it is scored for a modest ensemble with no chorus, and is for the most part written in a rather light and satirical style. The outrage at this by both the authorities and various music critics lasted for years (Wilson 201-204). Finally in 1948, an official resolution was made in which leading Russian composers were denigrated with the label of ‘formalism’ and forced to denounce themselves (Wilson 240). Because of the ambiguity of ‘formalism’ in its capacity as being ‘against the People’, virtually anyone could fall under suspicion of associated tendencies. Shostakovich was the first on the list, and therefore bore the brunt of the assault. His First Violin Concerto of 1947-48 was not performed until 1955 (Wilson 232), and Shostakovich was forced to put several works such as From Jewish Folk Poetry ‘in the drawer’. For months, he was made to attend endless meetings at which he was vilely slandered.

Given the oppressive political atmosphere in which Shostakovich lived and worked, it is interesting to analyze the way he used vernacular material in his compositions. Rather than borrowing from folk idioms, like Kodály and Bartók, Shostakovich tended to draw from Russian revolutionary and prison songs. He used some Russian and Ukrainian folk tunes in his music, but they were employed to mock political figures instead of to celebrate musical heritage. In addition, Shostakovich wove Jewish folk elements into several of his compositions.

In Shostakovich literature, perhaps the most significant work which makes use of commonly known tunes is the String Quartet No. 8. Composed in 1960 in three days, it was intended to be a summation of everything he had written up to that point. He also meant it to be his last piece, planning to consume an entire bottle of sleeping pills after finishing it. This was because he had just been forced to join the Party, which he associated with death. The quartet contains a number of quotes from his own works, such as the Second Piano Trio and the Eleventh Symphony, and also his ‘musical monogram’ DSCH (D-Eb-C-B) as well as glimpses of Beethoven and Chaikovsky. Most interesting is his use of the revolutionary song ‘Zamuchen tyasholoy neveolyey’ (Tormented by Grievous Bondage) in the finale (Horner). He integrates it fully into his music, placing it as a countersubject to the theme from the first movement of the quartet. The song is first heard directly after the introductory section of the movement in the cello. After that, it is constantly passed between all four instruments in various keys. Frequently, the song is the only moving part heard, as the other themes in this movement are more static. When the main theme of the movement dies out, ‘Zamuchen’ is the only thematic material present, appearing as a solo in the viola, followed by a bar of silence, then again as a solo in the second violin (Shostakovich Eighth Quartet 29-30).

The First Cello Concerto, composed in 1959, is notable for the extremes of mood among the four movements-- satirical in the first, tragic in the second, dirge-like in the cadenza, and burlesque in the finale. The finale is also remarkable for its inclusion of an extremely well-known folk song, ‘Suliko’ (Wilson 362), which was one of Stalin’s favorite songs and was played on the radio several times a day in case Stalin was listening (Horner 27). It is hidden in the wiry musical texture to all but the attentive ear, since the original is moderately slow and melodic, while Shostakovich renders it ridiculous. The concerto also refers to Russian folk melodies sung by Death in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. A Ukrainian folk dance, Trepak, is quoted as well.

Another work which makes use of ‘Suliko’ is the ‘Antiformalist Rayok’, which satirizes major political figures of the day. Written in about 1957 and unpublished and unperformed until 1989, it is scored for piano, chorus, and four soloists. All four sing ridiculous texts intended to mock their ignorance. The work is divided into four sections: introduction with the host Vedushchy, speech of Yedinitsyn (representing Stalin), speech of Dvoikin (representing Zhdanov, the person who initiated the 1948 attacks), speech of Troikin (representing Shepilov, the Soviet Foreign Minister), and a one-page voiceless ‘Dance’. The first section contains music original to Shostakovich, but the start of Yedinitsyn’s speech is a close variation of Suliko—most certainly used here because of Stalin’s fondness for it. It reappears later in the section. Additionally, Shostakovich includes a near-exact quotation of a Lezghinka, a popular Georgian folk dance, in the middle of the much longer speech of Dvoikin. The Lezghinka goes on to finish out Dvoikin’s speech. The music underpinning the main part of Troikin’s speech is extremely similar to a song written by Tikhon Khrennikov, the longtime head of the Union of Soviet Composers. Somewhat later, Troikin sings to the tune of the popular song ‘Kalinka’. Finally, starting near the end of Troikin’s speech and continuing through the final Dance, Shostakovich employs a song of the character 'Kupletov Serpoletta' from the operetta Les cloches de Corneville by the French composer Robert Planquette (Shostakovich Rayok).

Commonly one of Shostakovich’s least-respected symphonies, the Eleventh is ostensibly a paeon to the 1905 Revolution, in which peaceful civilians were executed en masse on Tsar Nicholas II’s orders. Because of its 1957 composition date, however, it was viewed by many as being a tribute to the 1956 Hungarian uprising, in which the Soviet-backed Hungarian secret police used violence to put down an incipient rebellion (Parry-Jones 2). Shostakovich included a prison song and a revolutionary song in prominent positions within this symphony. The prison song, entitled ‘Listen’ (Wilson 368), is the second major theme of the first movement, first occurring in the flutes. Later, it is in the trumpets with percussion, harp, and pizzicato strings to start the development section of the movement. It is lengthened somewhat, deviating from the original, and appears in the basses and celli, before being passed to the horns and bassoon. The strings as a whole pick it up and vary it, after which the flutes join in to quickly attain a climax, which in view of its surroundings and its absence of brass seems somewhat uneasy and limp. Parts of the central sections are repeated, leading not to another climax but to a restatement of the opening material (Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony 7-23). The revolutionary song, ‘You have fallen as victims of a fateful battle’ (Parry-Jones 3), is the opening material to the third movement, played at first on the violas with celli and basses accompanying pizzicato. After a somewhat repetitive and static section with the song as its only material, the movement starts another section and reaches climax, the aftermath of which also quotes the song. It appears before a long, quiet passage reminiscent of the opening of the movement and is reintroduced shortly before the silent conclusion (Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony 158-186). Although the finale includes material that resembles some popular tunes from the revolutionary era, they are original to the composer. In essence, Shostakovich wholly embraces the songs as if he himself had written them.

The Jewish factor in Soviet artistic and therefore political life cannot be underestimated. Although for hundreds of years Jews have been persecuted in Russia, anti-Semitism definitely reached its peak in the USSR under Stalin. It became the de facto official policy in 1948, at the height of Andrei Zhdanov’s persecutions. That year, most Jewish cultural activists in the country were assassinated. 1948 was also the year that, even while under extreme official pressure, Shostakovich bought a book of Jewish folk songs typical of the popular tradition and began to set them to music. This reflected his continuing interest in Jewish music, which at that point had produced the First Violin Concerto with a scherzo somewhat reminiscent of klezmer style, and the Second Piano Trio with another klezmer theme in the finale. Although the cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry does not actually use real folk tunes, the spirit is there, of ‘laughter through tears’, which Shostakovich particularly valued in Jewish music. Because of its “uniformly bleak” portrayal of Jewish life in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich added three optimistic songs to the original eight. These last three are completely opposite in nature, being mostly concerned with young person’s prospects in the land of the Soviets. However, one passage in the last song delivers a wrenching irony in retrospect. This is because of the famous ‘Doctors’ Plot’, a scandal in which ridiculously trumped-up charges were made against six prominent Jewish doctors. It was alleged that they had murdered Zhdanov. Although almost certainly untrue, the doctors were convicted and imprisoned. The line in From Jewish Folk Poetry, ‘Our sons have become doctors!’, was set to music about five years before the ‘Plot’, so it could not have been in response, but it acquired a new meaning all the same. The music was not performed in public until much later in the composer’s lifetime, in keeping with the Soviet government’s anti-Semitism (Wilson 267-268).

Compositions by Shostakovich that employed vernacular material, including folk, revolutionary, and Jewish elements, make up a small but significant amount of his total output. An analysis of these works shows that Shostakovich used vernacular themes to express his dissatisfaction with the political climate in which he lived. While composers outside of Russia commonly used folk idioms in their works as a celebration of their national heritage, Shostakovich’s use of vernacular themes as protest is singular and defines his struggles as an artist and citizen.

Works CitedEdit

Horner, Richard. Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet Op. 110 – 1960. December, 2003: 29 pages. 7 Nov 2008 <>.

Parry-Jones, Gwyn. Jacket Notes. Shostakovich Symphony No. 11. Super Audio CD, 47676-8, 2003.

Shostakovich, Dmitri. Anti-Formalist Rayok. Pub. by DSCH, 1995.

Shostakovich, Dmitri. Quartet Number 8 for Two Violins, Viola and Violoncello. Pub. by DSCH, 2006.

Shostakovich, Dmitri. Symphony Number 11: The Year 1905. Pub. by Leeds Music Corporation, 1958.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.