Happy Birthday, Dmitri Shostakovich!

– S. Stasov

September 25 is the 105th anniversary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of 20th century Russia’s most celebrated composers. Shostakovich was recognized as a child prodigy in piano and composition by the Soviet state, which both nurtured and terrorized many of its most gifted artists. A sensitive soul like Shostakovich showed early signs of the high anxiety and stifling fear that became obvious in photos and films of him as an adult.

To avoid personal annihilation and the murder of his family, Shostakovich had to capitulate to the State after he was denounced in 1936 in the state newspaper Pravda for his searing opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. A damning sentence was delivered to Shostakovich through the Pravda review titled “Music or Muddle?”

Official disapproval of an artist meant prison and frequently a death sentence that could come in the form of the most hideously violent murders. In order to protect his family, like David Oistrakh and other men and women of genius under that regime, Shostakovich cooperated with the Soviets, but expressed his dissidence through his compositions.

While remaining an active but reluctant member of the Communist Party, Shostakovich conveyed the collective agony of the oppressed peoples of the Soviet state in his music, which is short on beauty and high on dissonant discomfort. This is not to say that none of Shostakovich’s music was beautiful. The passacaglia from the first Violin Concerto in A Minor is one of the most hauntingly beautiful works ever composed for the violin. It premiered in the US with violinist David Oistrakh, another gifted product of the Soviet arts machine. (Oistrakh performing passacaglia from VC in A minor)
Courtesy of

Beautiful Galina Vishnevskaya was the greatest singing actress of the Soviet era. She and her husband, the celebrated cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, were close friends with Shostakovich, who revised the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District for her in the 1960s. Vishnevskaya and her husband were both penalized for their activism against Soviet tyranny. They were stripped of their personhood and citizenship, erased from Soviet history, and forced into exile.

Vishnevskaya’s performance in Shostakovich’s opera has fortunately been preserved in film. Filmic opera was a genre in which the Soviets excelled. Different from a filmed stage performance of an opera, filmic opera employs the arts of cinematography and set design, along with superior acting with a pre-recorded soundtrack. Here is some footage from the superb filmic opera of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth (renamed Katarina Izmailova) made by the Soviets in 1965.

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