Dmitri Shostakovich, born Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, on September 12 [September 25, New Style], 1906, in St. Petersburg, Russia, is the composer renowned particularly for his 15 symphonies, numerous chamber works, and concerti, many of them written under the pressures of government-imposed standards of Soviet art.
Shostakovich was the son of an engineer. He entered the Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory in 1919, where he studied piano with Leonid Nikolayev until 1923 and composition until 1925 with Aleksandr Glazunov and Maksimilian Steinberg. He participated in the Chopin International Competition for Pianists in Warsaw in 1927 and received an honourable mention but made no subsequent attempt to pursue the career of a virtuoso, confining his public appearances as a pianist to performances of his own works.
Opera, Blood, and Tears
the satirical opera by
in celebration of his life in music
September 25 at 3pm EST
Even before his keyboard success in Warsaw, he had a far greater success as a composer with the Symphony No. 1 (1924–25), which quickly achieved worldwide currency. The symphony’s stylistic roots were numerous; the influence of composers as diverse as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith (and, avowedly, Shostakovich’s contemporary Sergey Prokofiev) is clearly discernible. In the music Shostakovich wrote in the next few years, he submitted to an even wider range of influences. The cultural climate in the Soviet Union was remarkably free at that time; even the music of Igor Stravinsky and Alban Berg, then in the avant-garde, was played. Béla Bartók and Hindemith visited Russia to perform their own works, and Shostakovich openly experimented with avant-garde trends. His satiric opera The Nose (composed 1927–28), based on Nikolay Gogol’s story Nos, displayed a comprehensive awareness of what was new in Western music, although already it seems as if the satire is extended to the styles themselves, for the avant-garde sounds are contorted with wry humour. Not surprisingly, Shostakovich’s incomparably finer second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (composed 1930–32; revised and retitled Katerina Izmaylova), marked a stylistic retreat. Yet even this more accessible musical language was too radical for the Soviet authorities.
From 1928, when Joseph Stalin inaugurated his First Five-Year Plan, an iron hand fastened on Soviet culture, and in music a direct and popular style was demanded. Avant-garde music and jazz were officially banned in 1932, and for a while even the stylistically unproblematic Tchaikovsky was out of favour, owing to his quasi-official status in tsarist Russia. Shostakovich did not experience immediate official displeasure, but when it came it was devastating. It has been said that Stalin’s anger at what he heard when he attended a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936 precipitated the official condemnation of the opera and of its creator.
Shostakovich was bitterly attacked in the official press, and both the opera and Symphony No. 4 (1935–36) were withdrawn. The composer’s next major work was his Symphony No. 5 (1937), which was described in the press as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” A trivial, dutifully “optimistic” work might have been expected; what emerged was compounded largely of serious, even sombre and elegiac music, presented with a compelling directness that scored an immediate success with both the public and the authorities.
With his Symphony No. 5, Shostakovich forged the style that he used in his subsequent compositions. Gustav Mahler was a clear progenitor of both Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 5, but the latter represented a drastic shift in technique. Whereas the earlier symphony had been a sprawling work, founded upon a free proliferation of melodic ideas, the first movement of Symphony No. 5 was marked by melodic concentration and classical form. This singlemindedness is reflected elsewhere in Shostakovich’s work in his liking for the monolithic Baroque structures of the fugue and chaconne, each of which grows from, or is founded upon, the constant repetition of a single melodic idea. This almost obsessive concern with the working out of a single expressive character can also be seen in the recurrence in his mature music of certain thematic ideas, notably various permutations founded upon the juxtaposition of the major and minor third (already clear in Symphony No. 5), and the four-note cell D-E♭-C-B derived from the composer’s initials in their German equivalent (D. Sch.), interpreted according to the labels of German musical notation (in which “S,” spoken as “Es,” equals E♭ and “h” equals B).
In 1937 Shostakovich became a teacher of composition in the Leningrad Conservatory, and the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 found him still in that city. He composed his
Symphony No. 7 (1941) in beleaguered Leningrad during the latter part of that year and finished it in Kuybyshev (now Samara), to which he and his family had been evacuated. The work achieved quick fame, as much because of the quasi-romantic circumstances of its composition as because of its musical quality. In 1943 Shostakovich settled in Moscow as a teacher of composition at the conservatory, and from 1945 he taught also at the Leningrad Conservatory.
Later life and works
Shostakovich’s works written during the mid-1940s contain some of his best music, especially the Symphony No. 8 (1943), the Piano Trio (1944), and the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1947–48). Their prevailing seriousness, even grimness, was to contribute to Shostakovich’s second fall from official grace. When the Cold War began, the Soviet authorities sought to impose a firmer ideological control, demanding a more accessible musical language than some composers were currently using. In Moscow in 1948, at a now notorious conference presided over by Andrey Zhdanov, a prominent Soviet theoretician, the leading figures of Soviet music—including Shostakovich—were attacked and disgraced. As a result, the quality of Soviet composition slumped in the next few years. Shostakovich’s personal influence was reduced by the termination of his teaching activities at both the Moscow and Leningrad conservatories. Yet he was not completely intimidated, and, in his String Quartet No. 4 (1949) and especially his Quartet No. 5 (1951), he offered a splendid rejoinder to those who would have had him renounce completely his style and musical integrity. His Symphony No. 10, composed in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, flew in the face of Zhdanovism, yet, like his Symphony No. 5 of 16 years earlier, compelled acceptance by sheer quality and directness. His Symphony No. 11 (1957), a paean to revolution, earned him both the Lenin Prize and the Wihuri Sibelius Prize in 1958.
From that time on, Shostakovich’s biography is essentially a catalog of his works. He was left to pursue his creative career largely unhampered by official interference. He did, however, experience some difficulty over the texts (Baby Yar) by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko on which he based his Symphony No. 13 (1962), and the work was suppressed after its first performance. Yet he was undeterred by this, and his deeply impressive Symphony No. 14 (1969), cast as a cycle of 11 songs on the subject of death, was not the sort of work to appeal to official circles. The composer visited the United States in 1949, and in 1958 he made an extended tour of western Europe, including Italy (where already he had been elected an honorary member of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome) and Great Britain, where he received an honorary doctorate of music at the University of Oxford. In 1966 he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal.
Despite the brooding typical of so much of his music, which might suggest an introverted personality, Shostakovich was noted for his gregariousness. After Prokofiev’s death in 1953, he was the undisputed head of Russian music. After his own death his music became the subject of furious contention between those upholding the Soviet view of the composer as a sincere Communist and those viewing him as a closet dissident.
By David Brown, Richard Taruskin / Source: Britannica
“The Nose” details an “extraordinarily strange incident” of status-obsessed Kovalev and his nose. The story begins with drunken barber Ivan Yakovlevich unexpectedly discovering a nose in his breakfast, which he immediately recognizes as belonging to Kovalev, who is one of his clients. Fearing legal trouble, Ivan Yakovlevich hastily dumps the nose in the river. When a police officer asks him what he’s up to, Ivan Yakovlevich nervously tries to sidestep the question, but the officer won’t relent. The section ends at this exchange, leaving the subsequent encounter between the police officer and Ivan Yakovlevich a mystery.
The second section begins with Kovalev waking up one morning to a smooth patch of skin in place of his nose. Horrified and confused, Kovalev disguises the absence of a nose with handkerchief as he attempts to go about his day. Kovalev soon discovers his nose dressed as a man of high rank entering a church. When Kovalev timidly confronts the nose, the nose responds with annoyance, declaring that he is own person—not Kovalev’s nose. When Kovalev distractedly pauses to leer at a young woman, the nose slips away.
From there, Kovalev fails to place an ad for his nose in the newspaper when a newspaper clerk declares that the ad would be too strange to print. Then, the police commissioner refuses to assist Kovalev, essentially declaring that whatever happened was probably Kovalev’s own fault. Kovalev returns to his apartment, withdrawing from his regular practice of social climbing and pursuing women.
That evening, though, the police officer from the first section returns the nose to Kovalev. The nose is no longer a gentleman, but is now lifeless and normal-sized. After failing to reattach the nose himself, Kovalev frantically requests a local doctor’s assistance. The doctor ultimately declines to help Kovalev, determining that even though he could reattach it, he thinks Kovalev is better off without the nose. After offering to buy the nose from Kovalev—an offer the protagonist rejects—the doctor leaves.
Wondering how such a terrible fate could have possibly befallen him, Kovalev accuses Podtochina, the mother of a young woman he mistreated, of casting a spell on him. He sends Podtochina a letter threatening legal action. When Podtochina’s reply indicates that she has no idea what Kovalev is talking about, he rules her out as a probable cause.
Meanwhile, rumors of the nose circulate throughout town, and the story of the nose eventually becomes a city-wide myth. With most of the city’s population enthralled, some high-status men dismiss talk of the nose as crude gossip.
The third section picks up two weeks later. Upon waking up one morning, Kovalev is delighted to find his nose suddenly back on his face, as if it had never left. After a careful shave from Ivan Yakovlevich, Kovalev returns to his old ways, climbing the social ladder and objectifying women.
The narrator concedes how the story’s bizarre and unexplained elements are difficult to believe. Still, the narrator maintains that the story is true. He ends the story: “such incidents do happen in the world—rarely, but they do happen.”
The Nose — satirical opera in three acts
Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Librettists: Georgy Ionin, Alexander Preis, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Yevgeny Zamyatin
St. Petersburg/Leningrad. Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov gets a shave in Yakovlevich’s barbershop. The following morning, Yakovlevich, to his horror, finds a human nose in a freshly baked loaf of bread. Furious, his wife accuses him of having cut off the nose of one of his customers and orders him to dispose of it. Yakovlevich tries to get rid of the nose in the street but keeps running into acquaintances and becomes increasingly confused. When he finally manages to throw the nose into the Neva River, a police officer sees him and takes him in for questioning.
Kovalyov awakes and discovers that his nose has disappeared. His initial disbelief turns into shock and he rushes off to search for it. Entering the cathedral, he finds the nose, now the size of a human being, at prayer and dressed in the uniform of a State Councilor. He asks it to return to its proper place, but the nose doesn’t understand him and refuses to have anything to do with a person of lower rank. When Kovalyov is momentarily distracted, the nose escapes.
Still in search of his missing nose, Kovalyov arrives at the apartment of the chief of police, who is not at home. Frustrated, he decides to place an advertisement in the paper. At the newspaper office, the clerk is busy with the footman of a countess whose dog has gone missing. When Kovalyov is finally able to explain his situation, the clerk refuses to accept the advertisement, claiming that the paper would lose its good reputation. Kovalyov pleads with him and uncovers his face, revealing that his nose is truly gone. The astonished clerk recommends that Kovalyov sell his story and, in a gesture of friendship, offers him a pinch of snuff. Insulted, Kovalyov leaves. Back home, he finds his servant lying idly on the sofa, playing the balalaika. He sends him away and launches into a monologue of self-pity.
The police have taken up the chase and are looking for the nose. At a railway station on the outskirts of the city, an inspector rallies his men. Travelers get ready to leave. A young pretzel vendor distracts the policemen and general confusion ensues, when suddenly the nose enters running, trying to stop the train. Everybody pursues the nose, which is finally arrested, beaten back to its normal size, and wrapped in a piece of paper.
The inspector returns the nose to Kovalyov, who unsuccessfully tries to reattach it to his face. Even a doctor can’t help. Kovalyov now suspects that the cause of his misfortune might be Madame Podtochina, who put a spell on him for refusing to marry her daughter. He writes her a letter but her reply convinces him that she had nothing to do with the matter. Meanwhile, rumors have spread that the nose is on the loose in the city, and people rush about to catch a glimpse of it until police restore order.
Kovalyov awakes one morning to find his nose back in its place. Overjoyed, he dances a polka. Yakovlevich, who has just been released from prison, arrives to give him a shave. Kovalyov strolls along Nevsky Prospect greeting acquaintances, delighted by the return of his nose. Some of the characters reflect on the story just told.
Source: Metropolitan Opera