Dmitri Shostakovich and Johann Sebastian Bach
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one of the greatest composers of Soviet Russia. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is regarded today as the father of Western music. They came from opposite ends of music history and lived in entirely different environments, but Shostakovich was undoubtedly influenced by Bach’s music, and their respective musical styles came from the same core tradition of Western music. But most importantly, underneath the obvious differences and the subtle similarities, these composers shared the same artistic spirit.
Before looking more closely at the composers’ works, they must be placed in their proper historical contexts. Bach was a great composer of the Enlightenment. All his life he wanted to find a court post, with its increased liberty and financial backing (he had a family of twenty), but he never progressed beyond the Baroque equivalent of a Lutheran minister of music, who was expected to provide new music each week for the Sunday service. By the end of his life, his son C.P.E. Bach was far more famous than Johann ever was.
In comparison, Shostakovich was an adolescent during the Russian Revolution of 1917, and for the rest of his life he lived in an uneasy relationship with the ideologically oppressive authorities. His life was difficult, but from his very first symphony of 1925 he was hailed as one of the greatest composers of his day. He had two public clashes with Stalin’s totalitarian regime, but survived. Today, a fierce argument rages over his actual political leanings: he never publicly showed dissatisfaction with communism, but his supposed memoirs paint a very different picture.
The world of music changed greatly between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. The Baroque period, of course, was the musical contemporary of the Enlightenment, and reflects that concern with clarity and order. Baroque music tends to be complex, but with a very organized system of forms and harmonies that is the basis for almost all music from what is called the “Common Era,” the period between 1700-1900. The Common Era developed throughout the nineteenth century, but after 1900 music entered an age of experimentation; music perhaps became a postmodern art genre very early on. Baroque music all sounds similar, although the educated listener can tell Bach from Handel without difficulty. In the realm of contemporary music, however, entirely atonal music from Schoenberg and Webern can easily exist alongside French Impressionism and Copland’s American neo-Romanticism. Today’s composers are similar only in that their styles, and entire musical languages, are radically different.
Neither Bach nor Shostakovich was a musical innovator. Bach was the ultimate Baroque composer; his pieces are models of perfected compositional techniques, filled with the smoothly flowing harmonies and complex polyphony characteristic of the time. His numerous dance suites, both for solo...