Music in the Darkest of Times: the Work of Shostakovich

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The leaders of Communist Russia killed millions of people, yet they did not succeed in killing one of the greatest forms of expression: music. Many who lived through Joseph Stalin’s iron rule would say that the pain and devastation of the era shaped them forever, and many of the greatest composers of all time suffered the same fate. These men and women wrote pieces of legendary value, some of which are lost today due to the actions of oppressive dictators and concentration camp operators. 

My flat-out favorite 20th century composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, was a product of the terrorizing dictatorships of early Communist Russia and Stalin. In fact, some of his most profound pieces were written in response to Stalin’s dominance. Shostakovich put his misery into creating something that would express his nightmare of a life, while giving listeners an impressionable place to feel their own sorrows and pains. Of course, not all of his music was written because of depressing events; much of his more cheerful music was propaganda to save his own skin. He struggled to please the Communist Party by composing the “right” kind of music, but many party officials still believed his music to be too radical and modern. Shostakovich knew what happened to those who were deemed “an enemy of the people,” as many of his fellow composers and friends had been subjected to punishments because of their defiance. 

Yet through it all, Shostakovich persevered, and he never stopped exercising his craft. Scribbling music between air raids, sketching the outline of a symphony during a siege, writing notes while awaiting arrest, Shostakovich’s continuous resilience was a hushed defiance of those who tried to overpower him. Anyone who knew him would describe his personality as calm and quiet, but he could bring such tremendous rage into his music. Shostakovich could make a string quartet sound as though the instruments were screaming, so much so that the musical shrieks of despair became lifelike.

Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, the Leningrad, was composed during World War II. Bits and pieces of it were put together while bombs whistled over his home city of Leningrad. Notes were strung into phrases as the Germans surrounded the city and prepared to lay siege to it for nearly nine hundred days. The different parts of the symphony were assembled as Shostakovich witnessed nearly a million of his fellow Leningrad residents die of starvation, sickness, and murder. Yet, these horrible experiences drove Shostakovich to write such a compelling symphony, one with deep meaning and human connection. When the Leningrad Symphony was first performed to the citizens of its name, most of the musicians were too weak to play. In fact, three of the orchestra members died before the premiere. But when the symphony was finally performed to the people, it was so full of depth and understanding that it was beyond words. As one audience member put it, One cannot speak of an impression made by the symphony; it was not an impression but a staggering experience. This was felt not only by the listeners, but also by the performers who read the music sheets as if they were reading a living chronicle about themselves.”

As evidenced by Shostakovich, music reflects the human experience itself. It transcends all words and thoughts to pull forth only our souls in their purest forms.