Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. He achieved fame, but with much hardship along the way. He was censored and threatened with not only his life but that of his wife and children by playing the role of a public figure in Soviet Russia. The question is was he a committed communist or a victim? The events in his life, good or bad, shaped the music that he created and led to one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th century, his Fifth Symphony.
Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia on September 25, 1906, Shostakovich was the second of three children born to Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich and Sofiya Vasilievna Kokoulina. His father was of Polish descent but both his parents were Siberian natives. Dmitri was a child prodigy as a pianist and composer. He began taking piano lessons from his mother at the age of nine. He displayed an incredible talent to remember what his mother had played at the previous lesson and would get caught pretending to read the music, playing the music from his last lesson instead of what was placed in front of him.
In 1919, at the age of thirteen, he was allowed to enter the Petrograd Conservatory in Saint Petersburg and studied piano with Leonid Nikolayev. Because the conservatory was poorly funded, it did not have heat; the students had to wear coats, hats and gloves constantly only taking off their gloves when composing. Because of these poor living conditions Dmitri developed tuberculosis of the lymph glands in spring 1923 and had to have an operation. Nevertheless, he completed his final piano examinations at the conservatory in June with his neck still bandaged. Shostakovich, though very intelligent and talented, was seen as immature in his final year at the conservatory Shostakovich initially failed his exam in his Marxist method class. When another student was asked to explain the difference between the music of Liszt and Chopin on sociological and economic grounds, the young composer burst out laughing. Luckily, he was able to petition the decision and re-take the test with a straight face. In the future, he would learn not to be so casual about politics.
His first major musical achievement was the First Symphony, premiered in 1926, written as his graduation piece at the age of nineteen. The May 12th performance was coincidentally the first radio broadcast from the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic and was a major public and professional success (Fanning). The success of Shostakovich’s First Symphony propelled him to international fame. It was the first symphony composed in the Soviet Union to win a place in the general repertory.
In the ten years between his first symphony and his first official “fall from grace” Shostakovich pursued several different opportunities. After graduation he earned money from teaching score reading at the Central Musical Technical College and by commissioning incidental music, film scores and ballets. In...