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Music / Dmitri Shostakovich

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To quote Leonard Bernstein, a true son of Tchaikovsky.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (25 September 1906 – 9 August 1975) was a Russian composer of classical music. His style is, on the one hand, well known for its exaggerated, tense emotions often bordering on the grotesque; and on the other hand, for its subtle irony and light wit. Not very surprising, considering that Shostakovich worked in an era when Soviet censors dictated what kind of art is acceptable. He had to learn to be discreet and hide clever musical hints beneath bombastic, "clichéd" music.

His music provides many awesome moments. Most notably, his Symphony No. 5 in D minor moved his audience to tears because it evoked to them vivid images of their oppression under the Soviet dictatorship. Somehow, at the same time, that same dictatorship praised the symphony for being patriotic and pro-communist; the censors never picked up on the subtle musical subversions.


Tropes that apply to him and his works include:

  • "Psycho" Strings: Shostakovich was particularly fond of these, using them to create an atmosphere of unsettling tension even where one would not expect to find such.
  • Sanity Slippage: He struggled pretty hard to keep himself on the party line - to the point where his wits almost eroded. Consider that Shostakovich pre-1930 was out of reins in a fashion that would surprise any member of the party after The Purge.
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  • Sell-Out: Many of his western contemporaries considered him to be this, as he lived as good a life an artist could in the Soviet Union, writing what are effectively Soviet and Stalinist propaganda pieces. It didn't help that he refused to leave the Soviet Union despite being given the opportunity to.
  • Stealth Parody: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, 'An Artist's Creative Response to Just Criticism', was hurriedly composed to curry favour with the Party apparatchiks through the sort of simple, heroic classical music that they preferred, after Pravda's slamming of Lady Macbeth left Shostakovich on very thin ice indeed. They happily lapped it up too, not noticing the little details that he had slipped in to convey his own opinion of the project, like the "Psycho" Strings in the grand, triumphant finale.
  • Take That!:
    • After Pravda denounced Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, forcing him to adhere more closely to Soviet-approved forms of music or face dire consequences, his work became littered with these. One good example is his Festive Overture, written very shortly after Joseph Stalin's death.
    • Symphony No. 9 in E♭ major shows him in full-on Deadpan Snarker mode, with victory celebration music (this was just after World War II ended) vying rather hopelessly with a Circus of Fear theme representing the Soviet leadership. Also, Wagnerian motifs are used to hint at the fact that Utopia Justifies the Means regimes aren't so different from each other.
  • Theremin: Shostakovich pioneered the use of the Russian-invented electronic instrument in a film score as early as 1931.
  • Title by Year: Two symphonies:
    • Symphony No. 11 in G minor (The Year 1905), composed in 1957.
    • Symphony No. 12 in D minor (The Year 1917), composed in 1961.


Video Example(s):


Shostakovich 5th Symphony

Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic during a tour of Japan in 1979.

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Main / DramaticTimpani

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