Dmitri Shostakovich's paternal grandfather, Boleslav Szostakowicz, a descendant of a Polish Catholic family, was a revolutionary in the January Uprising in Warsaw that began in 1863, a year after the new Governor-General, the Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich, brother of Tsar Alexander II, had taken up his post and had managed to escape an assassination attempt on his second day in Warsaw when he was attacked by a tailor's apprentice shouting Polish nationalist slogans (the same Grand Duke to whom Tchaikovsky would dedicate his 2nd String Quartet in 1874).
The January Uprising under the Russians' military rule of Poland was primarily over the conscription of Polish men for the Russian Imperial army and would last until the last of its leaders had been rounded up the following year and deported to Siberia. In 1864, Szostakowicz, a student of 18 or 19, helped organize the escape of one of the organizers from prison; two years later he was arrested during a crack down following an attempt on Alexander II's life and exiled to Tomsk, a town in Siberia about halfway between St. Petersburg and the Pacific Coast. During his exile, he married the daughter of a family “on friendly terms” with Nikolai Chernishevsky, who wrote his novel What Is to Be Done? in 1862 while in prison (promoting “the idea that the intellectual's duty was to educate and lead the laboring masses in Russia along a path to socialism that bypassed capitalism,” proved very influential among Russia's intelligentsia).
When his exile's term ended, Shostakovich's grandfather chose to stay in Siberia, eventually becoming a successful banker in Irkutsk. His son, Dmitri Boleslavovich, not permitted to serve in the military because he was the son of a revolutionary, went to St. Petersburg to study mathematics and physics, in 1902 finding a position in the “Palace” of Weights and Measures working under the famous physicist Dmitri Mendeleiev (the inventor of the Periodic Chart). Two years later, he married a woman – a pianist – who was also born in Siberia and on September 25th (by the “New Style” Calendar), 1906, their second child, a son, was born and christened the next day. She wanted to name him “Jaroslav Dmitrievich” but the priest thought the name old-fashioned and convinced her the baby should be named Dmitri after his father which, he thought, sounded more euphonious even though she felt superstitious about having “two identical names” in the family.
Russia, at the time, was in turmoil: after the massacre known as Bloody Sunday in January, 1905, and the ensuing violence known now as the “1905 Revolution” (though it was nothing quite so organized as that implies), there was a general sense of foreboding. The imperial regime of Nicholas II was “generally detested” and this sense of impending change – with or without the Duma, the tsar's days were numbered – greatly affected the artistic world in the final days of the Empire. The literary avant-garde promoted “cultural anarchy,” and found its voice in the music of Skryabin (or Scriabin in its more common Western spelling) and Prokofiev. More intensely modernist composers in the years leading up to 1917 even began experimenting with 12-tone music – while Prokofiev had given the first Russian performance of Schoenberg's early atonal music, the Viennese composer had himself not yet devised his own theories about “composing with twelve tones” which later became known as serialism.
|Liadov, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov|
That did not mean the traditionalists were pro-Tsar: Rimsky-Korsakov, head of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, sided with the students and condemned the government's response to the 1905 uprisings. He was then ousted from his job by Imperial bureaucrats, his protege Glazunov resigning in protest.
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Dmitri Shostakovich was 9 years old when his mother, a pianist, decided to start giving him piano lessons – that was her policy: she'd already begun teaching his older sister Marya when she was 9 and younger sister Zoya would begin her lessons at 9 as well. But Dmitri took to it surprisingly fast – in two days, he was already reading music and a few days after that, able to play four-hand duets with his mother. Before that, his attitude had been he enjoyed music but thought it was too hard to learn and not worth the effort. But it turned out he had “perfect pitch” and could memorize easily. Soon, he was sitting at the piano, improving little pieces about stories he had read – the first one, he later recalled, was Hans Christian Andersen's “The Mermaid.” His aunt recalls how he'd sit at the piano and tell a story in words and then play music to illustrate it: “Here is a little house lit by a candle” – Mitya (the nickname for Dmitri) would play his tune and then, looking slyly over the top of the piano, he suddenly flicked a note high in the treble – “Somebody peeks in the window.”
It sounds idyllic, in its own way, recalling Shostakovich's childhood until you compare it against the reality of the world he was growing up in. Remember, when he was taking his first piano lessons, it was 1915 and Russia had become embroiled in the European conflict known now as “World War I” (until the second one, it had been called “The Great War,” great in the sense of “large,” not “wonderful”; euphemistically, it was referred to as “The War to End All Wars,” but we have seen how that has turned out).
|A colorized photograph of the Imperial Family with Nicholas II seated beside his wife, Alexandra, surrounded by their four daughters and their youngest child, the Tsarevich Alexei (taken around 1913 or 1914)|
The Russian invasion of Germany was a disaster from the beginning; if things weren't bad enough, the Tsar, already inept at handling the politics of governing, then personally took over the command of the army.
Meanwhile, at home, the Empress was running the day-to-day government from the Winter Palace which outraged not only the people – already suspicious of the role of the mystic Rasputin – but even by government ministers and members of the Imperial family. Still, the Tsar refused to listen to their advice.
At the end of December, 1916, Rasputin was lured into an ambush, poisoned with cyanide, shot three times at close range, once in the head, and beaten, yet still seemed to survive long enough to attack his killers before he was shot again, rolled up in a rug and thrown into the Neva River (the official cause of death was hushed up as “drowning”).
Then, all of this political and social instability began to boil over following years of political repression, privation, poor working conditions and worsening famine – and with the Tsar and the army occupied elsewhere – until, without either side being prepared for it, riots in the streets and mutiny among the police broke out on February 23rd (Old Style), 1917.
Sergei Prokofiev noted in his Autobiography, “The February Revolution found me in Petrograd. I and those I associated with welcomed it with open arms. I was in the streets of Petrograd while the fighting was going on, hiding behind those house corners when the shooting came too close.” The excitement of the day, he noted, was reflected in No. 19 of his Visions fugitives which captures “the feeling of the crowd rather than the inner essence of the Revolution” [quoted in Boris Schwarz, “Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1970”].
The chairman of the Duma telegraphed the Tsar at the front to return immediately: Petrograd was in chaos, anarchy in the streets, and so forth. But the Empress had written to him that concern over the situation was “an over-reaction,” and so the Tsar ignored his ministers' pleas for action. By the time he decided to return to the capital, he was unable to because of the strikes: the railroads were in control of the reolutionaries.
Finally faced with the reality of the situation, upon the advice of his ministers, the Tsar chose to abdicate in favor of his younger brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich (the rightful heir, the Tsarevich Alexei, was only a 12-year-old boy) but Michael knew he would have no support to run the government and so he declined the crown.
With that, the Romanov Dynasty, which had recently celebrated 300 years on the throne, came to an end, and with it, the Russian Empire.
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The new Provisional Government withdrew from the European war, establishing itself to run the country until a new government could be formed. Most of its leaders felt this had been a “bourgeois revolution” and proceeded to plan some form of democratic constitutional government. But the Petrograd Soviet, the council organized by Bolshevik leaders, began working against them, speaking in favor of the working class.
The Bolsheviks themselves were a minority of the different factions but in the end, they proved better organized. And they had a charismatic leader.
|Lenin Addressing a Crowd|
By October, then, Lenin and the Bolsheviks of the Petrograd Soviet first stormed the Winter Palace with the help of the ship Aurora, under Bolsehvik control, which fired on the palace from the harbor. The next morning, Lenin announced the Provisional Government had been overthrown, avoiding talk of “socialism” and “Marxism” for fear of alienating the rest of the population, stressing that the new government would be “controlled by the workers.”
Immediately, another faction of the Soviet, called Mensheviks, declared the Bolshevik take-over illegal – and then this eventually escalated into the Civil War.
Incidentally, the term soviet meant a “council” – one of those committees of the party faithful that would run the local government, hence the “Petrograd Council” along with other councils set up in various cities across Russia. A “Congress of Soviets” led to the formation of a government that was socialist, following Marxist philosophy, and made up of various internal republics (the way we might consider states or provinces) each with their various councils or soviets – hence, basically, a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The sense of euphoria felt by the Bolsheviks was disappointed when the Workers' Revolution did not immediately spread across Europe as had been predicted.
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|Tsar Nicholas II under arrest|
And so ends three hundred years of Imperial rule...
Most of the bodies were not located until 1979 - daughter Maria and son Alexei were not found until 2007 - and identified through DNA. In July, 1998, they were buried in the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul in the city that had once been called Leningrad but since 1991 was once again, after the fall of the Soviet Union, called St. Petersburg.
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There are accounts given by Shostakovich in which he recalls being out on the streets of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in the days following the October Revolution (which his aunt called "The Bloodless Revolution") and seeing a young boy brutally killed with a slash from a saber by a policeman. His Aunt Nadia also described how the family came home from watching a vast parade through the streets a few days later as workers carried the bodies of people killed in the street-fighting up the Nevsky Prospect (the city's most famous street) to a common grave in Mars Field. Dmitri, who was 11, went to the piano and played quietly "for a long time" and composed what he called a "Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution."
There are also accounts in official Soviet biographies about Shostakovich that mention how he had been a witness to Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station, marking his arrival in Petrograd in the days between the February and the October Revolutions. His younger sister Zoya claims that he did see this, but his children have remarked they have no memory of him ever telling them this.
Alexander Glazunov was now the director of the now Petrograd Conservatory when a 13-year-old boy named Dmitri Shostakovich enrolled in his school in 1919, in the midst of the Civil War.
It was less than two years after the two Revolutions that, first, toppled the Tsar's empire and then replaced a fledgling democratic government with the rise of the Bolsheviks and the formation of the Soviet Union – this, incidentally, began a bloody Civil War that didn't end until 1921, and even then, the establishment of the Communist state was more of a long-range plan than a stabilized resolution of the war.
The six-room apartment the Shostakovich family of five and a couple servants lived in – and would before the Revolution hold parties for 30-40 friends where the dancing would last well into the early morning hours – now housed the family plus six other tenants just so they could afford the rent. To pay for some of Dmitri's medical expenses, they sold one of their two pianos, being left with the one that was in such bad shape it “made a sound like an old pot,” the young composer wrote to a friend. Food was scarce, as was fuel – and manuscript paper, too: Dmitri's younger sister Zoya would draw staff-lines on scraps of letters or newsprint for her brother to write on.
There was little or no heat, if you can imagine a cold Russian winter, imagine living in it – or playing the piano in it – without heat? A fellow-student at the conservatory remembered a performance of Beethoven's 9th where you could see the choir's breath when they sang of universal brotherhood and where the conductor, under his tuxedo, was wearing several layers of thermal underwear.
The conservatory's classrooms were unheated but one enterprising pianist “invented” an apparatus with a small tin box which could hold a few chunks of smoldering charcoal. You would put your fingers over the box to warm them up, then begin practicing. Another friend of Shostakovich's reminisced about how she and a friend would race home, one glove between them, trading it back and forth from hand to hand as they ran through the snow.
Glazunov's own life had changed greatly with the Revolution. Respected but without much expected from him – in 1921, a new string quartet (his 6th) which showed “signs of creative decline,” would be reviewed by the new Soviet critics as “a certain academization of style.”
Maximilian Steinberg, one of Shostakovich's teachers, later recalled a visit to Glazunov at home (the context seems to be 1923, but given the fluidity of memory, it could've been earlier).
“Glazunov, who all his life was used to living in a large flat with all conveniences, was now housed in one smallish room heated by a small stove; here he worked, composed, slept. In the next room was his mother, almost 80 years old. In the other rooms, the temperature was freezing; some time later, other people moved in. Under such circumstances, creative work was difficult...”
He went on to recall meeting other musicians there. One night, Glazunov, in a heavy fur coat, was playing his 2nd Piano Concerto for a friend and conductor. He also met Artur Schnabel there. If these actually occurred in 1923, after the Civil War, conditions by this time would have improved.
During a lesson, a piano student heard Glazunov enter the classroom to tell his teacher, “Maria Nikolaievna, the cabbages have arrived,” then the two of them, wrapped in their overcoats and scarves, scuttled off down the hall to unpack crates of cabbages after she told her student “now repeat that one hundreds time” till she returned. Then the school would smell of boiled and pickled cabbage which is almost all the school cafeteria had to feed its students.
Students also got a ration of food from the government – in the mid-1920s, Shostakovich received two spoons of sugar and a half-pound of pork every two weeks.
It was not surprising that Shostakovich – whose health was already frail – was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the lymph glands. The family was able to get enough money to pay for the surgery but Shostakovich refused to miss the end of the school year – so he took his exams and played his graduation piano jury in 1923 with his neck heavily bandaged.
His father had died suddenly – a cold that turned into pneumonia – in February of 1922 – so his mother now had to find work. A middle-class housewife who never worked in her life, she now had a string of low-paying jobs in shops and offices. She started giving piano lessons. Her students paid her in bread (not using slang, here) because nobody had much money and besides, bread you could eat.
That's when Dmitri, turning 16, took a job playing piano for a movie theater, accompanying silent films. It was low-paying enough, but when his employer held back his paychecks for whatever reason, Shostakovich had to take him to court – and fortunately won.
As much as he hated the job, playing in an unheated theater, at least he found he could practice the piano while he was playing and sometimes tried out his newest compositions even though it might have nothing to do with the film – even if the audience didn't like what he was playing. One of his favorite actors, by the way, was Charlie Chaplin.
Still, he wrote to a friend of his, the future concert-pianist Lev Oborin, how he was 244 rubles in debt and made 100 rubles a month at the theater. After two months of drudgery, he was still 44 rubles in debt and had to eat... and buy manuscript paper. “One just spins around like a squirrel on a wheel. I've come to a slight halt in my composing.”
When he wrote this letter, he had already begun thinking about writing a symphony, but he had to keep putting it off.
Mostly, as a pianist, he was composing short piano pieces. There was a piano trio – not the famous one, but an early student one, his Op. 8 – which was his longest work to date. There were also two short orchestral scherzos which his teacher dismissed as “grotesques.”
The way the conservatory was structured, students entered into their classes by the degree of talent they exhibited and the extent their previous studies had prepared them. So you might find a 20-year-old among the beginners and, as it turned out, a 13-year-old among the advanced students, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s. Most of Shostakovich's friends were therefore older than he was, which caused some friction, inevitably, and a great deal of rivalry – not just with the other students, but also with his teachers.
But Glazunov was always behind him – as I said, no doubt recalling his own days as a child prodigy. He wrote letters to the Cultural Commissar, urging the government not to cancel Shostakovich's scholarship (or his food rations), citing the boy's talent and his potential – as well as his precarious health. When the school's assistant director wanted to withdraw the 16-year-old's scholarship at a faculty meeting, saying “his name means nothing to me,” Glazunov was so furious he shouted back “then what are you doing here? This is no place for you. Shostakovich is one of the best hopes for our art!”
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While Shostakovich was primarily a pianist who also studied composition, it was as a composer most of his colleagues and teachers saw his future. His composition teacher was Maximilian Steinberg, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov's and a fairly pedantic, old-fashioned academician, at that. Shostakovich called these lessons a “necessary evil” and treated them mostly passively. He wrote a Suite for Two Pianos which Steinberg criticized, wanting him to rewrite certain passages. So he did that. Immediately after the suite was performed, he burned the score and published it as his Op. 6 as he'd originally composed it.
But now he started thinking he would rather study at the Moscow Conservatory which was more European-oriented – more open to what was going on “now” in Western Europe than the Leningrad Conservatory's looking back on the Russian past of Rimsky-Korsakov and the Mighty Handful. His teacher there would be Nikolai Myaskovsky, one of the leading composers of the new Soviet Union, and when Shostakovich auditioned there, Myaskovsky accepted him without question and, after hearing his Piano Trio, even wondered why subject him to classes on Form when “he is already a complete master of form?”
So in the fall of 1924, just as Shostakovich turned 18, his faculty committee assigned him his graduation piece: he was to write them – a symphony.
|Dmitri Shostakovich, Student|
While we might hear suggestions from Stravinsky's “Petrushka” – the way he used the piano, for one – or of Schoenberg's earlier music (his serial style was still developing in the early-1920s), Shostakovich's 1st doesn't sound so “new” to us, but in the old-fashioned Leningrad school, it was quite daring. Consider how Glazunov had ruined the premiere of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony he conducted in 1897: it took three years before the young composer recovered and could write again. This time, it was clear to the other students that for all his support of this young genius, Glazunov had not a clue what was going on in Shostakovich's symphony. But he saw the boy's obvious talent and recognized his potential, regardless of that.
While the first two movements of his symphony are fairly sprightly – especially the scherzo with its nose-thumbing opening (the basses struggling to keep up), something happens then and the work becomes suddenly tragic with long-breathed phrases in the oboe solo that opens the 3rd Movement where there are quotations from Wagner – from the “Ring,” suggesting Siegfried the fatalistic hero – and a rhythmic motive with a descending minor third suggesting Fate itself (a tribute to Beethoven's 5th?) and another reminiscent of the opening of Tristan.
Shostakovich wrote to Lev Oborin he was “in a terrible mood,” unable to find work, unable to transfer to the Moscow conservatory, how a close friend of his was dying and now his neck was swelling up again (the return of the tuberculosis?) He felt like crying out in terror and how, from sheer misery, “I have begun to compose the finale of my symphony which is turning out to be pretty gloomy, almost like Myaskovsky – and he takes the cake when it comes to gloominess.”
Even though it technically ends in a triumphant F Major, the final cadence is not the usual Dominant-to-Tonic cadence we assume in standard tonality, a not-quite-Dominant chord giving it a rather “masked” sense of triumph at the final chord: triumphant if only to realize that merely to survive, in some circumstances, is a triumph...
After its premiere the next year – Shostakovich was by then 19 – it would turn him into a celebrity, the “shining light” of the future of Soviet Music. Still a child, technically, he would be hailed as the Soviet Union's first “home-grown” composer. Within a year, it would be performed in Germany, England and the United States, and would make him an international star. Shostakovich was on his way.
Glazunov, increasingly despairing about the new changes even though his status within the pantheon of Russian Music protected him from outright attacks by the Soviet government at the time, was concerned about his precarious position within the Conservatory. In 1928, he petitioned Lunacharsky to be allowed to tour Europe and attend festivals celebrating the Centennial of the Death of Schubert. He also toured the United States and then settled in Paris by 1929 where he remained.
Without officially emigrating, he was able to maintain a certain respect back home, unlike Rachmaninoff who fled and Stravinsky who chose not to return. He did not even resign his directorship at the Conservatory until 1930 when he announced he would stay in Paris "because of ill-health." He continued to compose a little, even married for the first time in his life, and eventually died outside Paris in 1936 at the age of 70. News of his death rather shocked the music world who had assumed he had died a long time before... His remains returned to Leningrad, the city that was once St. Petersburg and capital of the Russian Empire so dear to his heart, where he was buried in 1972.
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The most important thing for the new government – the new society – was to create a culture that was not Russian, not German (or European in general), not in fact anything that had existed before: the object of Anatol Lunacharksy, the newly appointed Commissar for Public Education, was to create nothing less than a new Soviet aesthetic in music, in literature, in art, in entertainment, not just in education. This was not something that could be done overnight and it was not easy to create, given all the influences that existed before the October Revolution. As one official History of Soviet Russian Music (written in the 1950s) put it:
“The activization [sic] of modernism and all other reactionary [sic!] tendencies increased sharply after the Revolution of 1905 and threatened Russian artistic culture – including music – with disintegration and decline. The Great October Revolution of 1917 saved Russian musical culture and opened unusual perspectives of fruitful development.”
How much – and even how – the Revolution “saved” Russian music is beyond the scope of my few posts (nearly book-length themselves, by now).
|Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky|
Wounded in an assassination attempt in 1918 and suffering two strokes in 1922, Lenin now had to deal with a power-struggle among his colleagues jockeying for power during his recuperation. He had suggested replacing Josef Stalin (whose behavior as well as his views frequently began to annoy Lenin) as the party's General Secretary and replacing him with Leon Trotsky who had been instrumental in the victory of the Red Army in the Civil War.
A third stroke in March, 1923, left Lenin speechless and partially paralyzed. He never recovered and slipped into a coma on January 21st, 1924 and died later that day. He was 53.
Stalin solidified his power: after increasingly bitter in-fighting and “show-trials” questioning his party orthodoxy, Trotsky was exiled to Turkey in 1929 and, after several other moves, was eventually assassinated in Mexico in 1940 by Stalin's agents. But all of that belongs to a future story.
How much Lenin's early death, so soon after the Civil War ended, affected not only the course of Soviet history but also its policies toward the arts, is one of those many “what-ifs” that no one can answer.
Of course, if Stalin had not come to power, certainly if nothing else Shostakovich's life would've been a lot easier. There is much to go into, here, especially regarding the 5th and 10th Symphonies, so I'll include this link where you can read more about the impact of Stalin's political and artistic views on Shostakovich's life and music, here.
But, as I often say, there is always more...