Shostakovich's joyous Festive Overture was comissioned in 1954 for a concert in honour of the 1917 October Revolution. An unashamedly triumphant work in contrast to the bitter sarcasm of many of Shostakovich's compositions, the Festive Overture is an orchestral riot of good humour.
The greatest symphonist of the mid twentieth century, Shostakovich was also a chronicler of his times; his career, threatened at several points by political interference parallels the fortunes of the Soviet people under an oppressive regime. Although his works were perceived for many years in the West as conservative, his reputation has steadily grown since his death in 1975, and his distinctive musical voice has made him one of the most popular of all 20th century composers.
Born in St Petersburg in December 1906, Shostakovich had a privileged upbringing in a musical house. His talent for the piano was quickly spotted and by 1917 he could play Bach's Das wohltemperirte Clavier in its entirety.
Following an education at the private Mariya Shidlovskaya Commercial School from 1915 to 1919, Shostakovich continued his musical studies at the Petrograd Conservatory, completing his final piano examination in 1923. He graduated in composition in 1925 with the 1st Symphony, a remarkable work that rocketed him to overnight stardom. It was the first work of the new Soviet Union to win a place in the international repertory.
Developing an interest in the progressive works of Stravinsky, Hindemith and Krenek, Shostakovich was forced to temper these instincts by the need to earn a living. He turned to incidental music, film scores and ballet, and taught sporadically. Meanwhile in 1927 his failure to win a prize at the first Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw prompted him to abandon his aspirations as a professional concert soloist. He also met Prokofiev and recognised an affinity for the music of Mahler.
In the summer of 1927 he met Nina Varzar and in 1932 the couple embarked on an open marriage. When Nina died in 1954, Shostakovich married Margarita Kaynova in 1956, but that relationship ended in divorce in 1959. Shostakovich married for a third time in 1962 to Irina Antonovna Supinskaya, who provided invaluable support throughout the periods of illness in the composer's final years.
It was with the first performance of his opera The Nose in 1930 that Shostakovich was first branded a 'formalist' (an insult thrown at any production that was not immediately understandable to the 'people' or displayed ideologically unsound views). The Union of Soviet Composers, a veiled instrument of Party control, was now the dominant force in the musical establishment and called for lyricism, heroic and popular music based on the language of the 19th century Russian masters.
Shostakovich ran into more trouble with his opera Lady Macbeth. Highly acclaimed by the public and critics, it was savaged by Pravda after Stalin and a group of party officials attended a performance. As the leading Soviet composer, Shostakovich was a prime target for Stalin's Purges.
Forced to moderate his style and move in more acceptable directions, his creative re-birth was signalled by the 5th Symphony in 1937, an unequivocal success with the public and critics. In this year, Shostakovich was also invited to join the staff of the Leningrad Conservatory and he would continue to maintain a teaching post for much of his career.
Further international success came in 1941 with the Symphony No. 7, partly composed in the besieged city of Leningrad and played all over the free world as an icon of Nazi resistance. Indeed the war years were a time of opportunity for Soviet artists. Once the war had ended, close party scrutiny of the arts returned; in February 1948 a party decree once more targeted the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others.
This time, Shostakovich rushed to denounce himself, yet he was still placed on a blacklist, dismissed from his teaching posts and forced to write music for patriotic films and choral works to earn an income. His serious music, which was growing increasingly gloomy, was set aside, waiting for more relaxed times.
Finally in 1953, Stalin died, allowing Shostakovich's banned and withheld works to be performed, and a new symphony, the mighty 10th, to be written. The anti-formalism decree of 1948 was partially rescinded and Shostakovich received a clutch of awards including the People's Artist of the USSR (1954) and the Order of Lenin (1956).
International honours also flooded in as Shostakovich made numerous trips abroad; on his trip to England in 1960 he met and became friendly with Benjamin Britten. However, there was a price to pay for this perceived freedom: Shostakovich had to accept all sorts of official posts and duties and in 1960 came under immense pressure to join the Communist Party; he relented and, ashamed, composed the 8th String Quartet as his obituary.
The cultural relaxation of the post-Stalin years was abruptly reversed when in 1964 Leonid Brezhnev replaced Khrushchyov. Shostakovich was abused as an instrument of the state as never before, forced to put his name to all manner of documents. By this time he was ailing physically, and was unable to mount any resistance. Nevertheless, the last decade was one of intense creativity and increasing exposure.
In his last years, Shostakovich suffered from lung cancer and the end came on the evening of 9 August 1975 in hospital at Kuntsevo. In his obituary, Pravda described him as 'a true son of the Communist Party' and even Western newspapers thought of him as a 'committed Communist'. The publication of Solomon Volkov's Testimony in 1979 (supposedly Shostakovich's memoirs) stirred up interest in the composer, despite the controversy over the source material, and exposed his remarkable struggle with the Soviet system.
Author Julian Barnes is publishing a new novel, The Noise of Time, based around the composer Dimitri Shostakovich.