Shostakovich was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, but the legacy he left was hard-won in the face of hard-faced political sanction which not only nearly ended his composing career but also became a threat to his life.
His early works showed a new and original talent and, as a virtuoso pianist and able conductor too, he developed a three-pronged career. Composing was always his first love, however, and by the time of his death aged 68 in 1975 he had made hugely sign1ficant contributions to a number of genres including orchestral music (fifteen symphonies and six concertos), chamber music (fifteen string quartets), piano music (in particular the 24 Preludes and Fugues), the theatre (operas and ballets) and even film music.
In 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was produced in Moscow and attended by Stal.in, who apparently reacted with horror to its uncompromising idiom, and a campaign was set up by Pravda to vilify his work, describing dissonances and lack of recognisable structure, and many of Shostakovich’s friends and colleagues were pressurised into denouncing him. Shostakovich was ordered to ‘reject formalist errors and in his art attain something that could be understood by the broad masses’. his income from new commissions was cut drastically and he actually feared for his life as he was made to withdraw his Fourth Symphony.
His reply was the Fifth Symphony, which he subtitled A Soviet Artist ‘s reply to just cnt1c1sm; it met with the approval of Ministry of Culture, and, by extension Stalin but it is fair to say that the work is full of sardonic humour, including a delicious nose-thumbing violin solo in the Allegretto second movement and the authorities w re just too blinkered to notice.
Certainly his cycle of fifteen symphonies ranks as one of the finest of the twentieth century; apart from the Fifth, No 7 harrowingly describes the appalling conditions suffered by the people of Leningrad during the Siege of 1941, and the Tenth is a trenchant assertion of his spirit written in the months after Stalin’s death in March 1953 and includes a vitriolic portrait of the dictator in the second movement.
The Festive Overture was written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the Revolution and premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre under Vassili Nebolsin. It was written rapidly at Nebolsin’s request for a work to begin his celebratory concert – the conductor thoughtfully gave Shostakovich a whole three days’ notice! It begins with a fanfare before launching into an energetic Allegro which the composer said was based on Glinka’s scintillating overture Ruslan and Ludmilla. The overture is free from any acerbic comment, demonstrating instead Shostakovich’s infectious high-spirits.
In case you’re wondering why the fanfare sounds familiar, it was used several decades ago as the theme music for the BBC’s occasional five -minute filler slot ‘Great Moments in Sport’.
Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018