Loretta Barnard

Know who you’re Googling – TBS Guide to Shostakovich

In Loretta Barnard’s new segment, she will avoid the pretence of art, instead giving you with a guide on who you might be missing out on.


In a recent article, TBS editor Mathew Mackie outed himself. Although he expressed some concern that others would see this new state of enlightenment as mere wankerdom, he bravely admitted to – wait for it – being a fan of Shostakovich. So what is it about the Russian composer that makes Mathew’s heart go all aflutter?

Here’s a quick guide to Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

Dmitri was a monumental musical talent. A dab hand at the piano, he was composing by around the age of ten. When he completed his studies at the Leningrad Conservatoire, his graduation piece was his First Symphony. He was only nineteen, and the world was his oyster.

He was soon commissioned to compose music for ballets and film, and the government gave him its stamp of approval. Shostakovich is often maligned as working for the Stalinist propaganda machine, but there are clear dissident elements in his oeuvre, and anyway, you try living in an oppressive regime where your fate as both an artist and as a human being is subject to the mercurial whims of petty party apparatchiks who wrote ridiculously narrow guidelines for artists to follow. He was always watching his back.

Composers and other creative artists in that period were expected to glorify the Revolution and if they were perceived to be too “modern” or too “avant-garde”, they paid the price – fewer commissions (so no income), public ridicule, and worse, possible imprisonment and/or purging. Shostakovich received his fair share of criticism and his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was famously panned as “muddle, not music”. At one stage, his music was banned outright.

Space doesn’t permit a longer look at the impact of the Soviet regime on the creative arts. It’s time to look at the man’s music.

The score for the 1951 propagandist film The Unforgettable Year 1919, where good ol’ Joe Stalin saves his people from the enemy, was written by Shostakovich. Set aside the blatant political message, and just listen to The Assault on Beautiful Gorky. Seven and a half minutes of sheer brilliance. Passionate piano accompanied by a rich full orchestra. It’s stunning. I listen to this piece all the time and the spectre of Stalin has never once been invoked. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

Piano Concerto No. 1 is an absolute joy, the trumpet part providing added texture and colour to the work. And don’t miss The Gadfly, another film score; or his incredible symphonies. He wrote 13 of those, an achievement in itself.

A great deal has been written about the Fifth Symphony, because it’s the work that put Shostakovich back into official favour after the regime denounced his previous compositions. He wrote the symphony supposedly within the strict structural guidelines imposed by the government, and while some see it as capitulating to the regime, others see it subversive elements in it. The slow movement, for example, is said to have moved the opening night audience to tears – because, according to some, it evokes the tragedy of the times. It’s an intense piece, full of gut-wrenching emotion. But whatever the motivation, it is a wonderful work and stands on its own. It is the work of a master composer – one of the dominant figures of Russian music.

If you feel a symphony might be a bit hard going, then try “lighter” pieces, such as the dance from The Age of Gold Suite, the popular Festive Overture or even his Opus 16, his take on Tea for Two. Shostakovich is full of surprises. Wonderful surprises from a musical giant.

Go now, listen to the music and be amazed. And ignore anyone who calls you a wanker.


Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

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One Comment;

  1. Kelly said:

    A creative artist works on his next composition because he was not satisfied with his previous one.

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