Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto: Written for Mstislav Rostropovich

In 1943, the 16-year-old Mstislav Rostropovich was in Dmitri Shostakovich’s orchestration class at the Moscow Conservatory. When Shostakovich heard the young cellist play, he was overcome with praise, commenting on the “the intense, restless mind and the high spirituality that he brings to his mastery.” Later, he wrote, Mstislav Rostropovich, never resting, always searching and growing—is of such significance that it seems already possible to claim his name will come to be given …

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Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: The Unlikely Triumph of Freedom

In a public statement, Dmitri Shostakovich reportedly gave the Fifth Symphony the obsequious subtitle, “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” These are the words of a composer held hostage, both artistically and literally. The year was 1937, and the Fifth Symphony represented Shostakovich’s attempt to placate Stalin and his cultural censors. A year earlier, the composer’s racy and subversive opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was attacked as “muddle instead of music” …

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“Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”: Excerpts from Shostakovich’s Censored Opera

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1932 opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, inhabits a grim world of “lust, loneliness, and murder.” Described by the composer as a “Tragedy-Satire,” it hovers somewhere between chilling terror and “grotesque vaudeville.” The dark plot, based on a novel of the same name by Nikolai Leskov, is centered around Katerina Ismailova, a bored and oppressed merchant’s wife who lives in a provincial town. As John Henken writes in his summary, …

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Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata: Oistrakh and Richter in 1969

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata, Op. 134 was completed in the autumn of 1968. The title page bears the inscription, “For the 60th birthday of David Oistrakh.” Shostakovich had attempted to commemorate the great Ukrainian violinist’s 60th birthday a year too early with the Second Violin Concerto. Oistrakh explained, Dmitri had been wanting to write a new, second concerto for me as a present for my 60th birthday. However, there was an error …

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Two Festive Overtures: Shostakovich Meets Glinka

On Wednesday, we explored Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, one of the most haunting and tragic works of the twentieth century. This is the kind of music we often associate with Shostakovich, a composer surrounded, for much of his life, by death, destruction, and grinding political oppression. Yet, there is a more lighthearted side to Shostakovich, perhaps most evident in the sparkling and zany 1927 orchestration of the Vincent Youmans song, Tea for Two, produced …

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Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony: A Requiem

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor is filled with distant, lamenting voices. It was written with remarkable speed during the summer of 1943 when Shostakovich was staying at an isolated retreat maintained by the Soviet Composer’s Union. The composer’s distance from the horrors of the Eastern Front and the siege of Leningrad could not block out the sense of alienation, gloomy futility, exhaustion, sardonic humor, and raw terror that pervades this music. …

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Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio: A Haunting Elegy

Dmitri Shostakovich completed the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor in 1944, shortly after composing the “wartime” Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Shostakovich had scarcely finished the first movement when he received word of the sudden death (at age 41) of his close friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, a brilliant musicologist, critic, and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. For nearly twenty years, Sollertinsky had been one of Shostakovich’s most loyal defenders. His influence included introducing …

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