Symphonic Spirit: Shostakovich in the Face of Communism

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Selena Puente, Contributing Writer

 

 

It was once said by Lev Mazel, the Soviet mathematician, that the music of Dmitri Shostakovich was like “algebra in which formulae containing several unknowns can have various solutions. More than one thing is happening at once, and not necessarily logically.” This is a composer who has been near and dear to my heart since high school, ever since I performed one of his famous piano concertos, Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor. This concerto has continued to influence my musical taste, and Shostakovich has forever impacted the world of classical music.

The motif most commonly used throughout Shostakovich’s music is composed of four notes: D, E flat, C and B. When translated into Russian, these notes spell the first name of the composer, Dmitri. Along with this characteristic, Shostakovich also strove to make music that reflected the ache for freedom that the common Russians felt in response to the burden of communism. His Symphony No. 7 is most famous for its contrasting movements of slow and dark melodies that grow more vibrant. This musical journey was meant to mirror the transformation the people would feel once they were free from their overbearing government.

Shostakovich’s music had such a mysterious power over the people that he became a target of communist officials and was forced to shuffle all of his fans into warehouses so that they could hear his strange and beautiful works.

Shostakovich was also deeply affected by the women that shuffled in and out of his life, most notably, a young love of his who ran away to Spain before they could get married. When in Spain, she married a man named Roman Carmen and Shostakovich creatively alluded to this by incorporating motifs from Bizet’s famous opera, “Carmen” in his works. Luckily, the composer found later found love with Nina Varzar, a young physicist who had an experimental nature as notable as the one Shostakovich possessed.

A painting of Dmitri Shostakovich done by Selena Puente sometime in 2013. Puente was painting with friends while a song of his and the Emily Dickinson poem, “The sun kept setting, setting still,” were stuck in her head. -Photo courtesy of Selena Puente
A painting of Dmitri Shostakovich done by Selena Puente sometime in 2013. Puente was painting with friends while a song of his and the Emily Dickinson poem, “The sun kept setting, setting still,” were stuck in her head.
-Photo courtesy of Selena Puente

Even though Shostakovich was one of Stalin’s targeted victims, a witness to the death of his childhood friends and the subject of continual ridicule over his formalist music, he continued to write. The same sort of angular beauty that an architect can appreciate is present in his tensely woven harmonies and brave arrangements. Anyone who is looking for new ways to experience classical music will find the playful but quirky melodies Shostakovich employs peculiarly enjoyable. I’d even recommend looking up pictures of Shostakovich himself (he looks like he could be Buddy Holly’s paler and more serious brother).

So, if you are ever wondering what lies beyond the lovely melodies of Hayden or Bach and still feel drawn to classical music, look up Dmitri Shostakovich. The valiance and commitment Shostakovich had in creating pieces of art is a gorgeous example of what it means to be committed to beauty – an aim I think we can all agree is important to strive for here at UD and beyond.

Recommended listening: Piano Concerto No. 1 (specifically the Moderato movement), “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk District” (an opera) and any one of his fabulous string quartets. For fans of Stravinsky, Wagner and/or Tchaikovsky.

 

 

1 COMMENT

  1. I really enjoyed the article and painting. The writer literally painted a picture of the history and the passion generated from this composer.

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