NPR logo

Shostakovich, Man of Many Variations

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Shostakovich, Man of Many Variations

Shostakovich, Man of Many Variations

Shostakovich, Man of Many Variations

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1972. Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Getty Images

Dmitri Shostakovich's most famous work, the Fifth Symphony, reflects his tenuous position as a creative artist in a repressive state. But the composer's overall contributions were stunningly diverse. Conductor Marin Alsop and Scott Simon reflect on the music of Shostakovich.


Dmitri Shostakovich was known as the great Soviet composer. Note, not Russian. He spent his life in the old USSR. And though some of his music was banned, much of it was celebrated by Soviet leaders as an example of the artistic excellence that could flourish under Soviet socialism. Today, Shostakovich is known as one of the most important composers of the 20th century, apart from the ideology under which he lived. Orchestras around the world have been marking the centennial of his birth on September 25th by performing his symphonies, ballets and chamber music.

We've invited conductor Marin Alsop to talk about Dmitri Shostakovich's music with us. She recently conducted an all-Shostakovich program at the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.

Thanks so much for being with us, Maestra.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Conductor): Great to be here.

SIMON: Shostakovich's life. He lived and worked under a cruel tyranny. Can that be separated from his music?

Ms. ALSOP: I think that is the big question about Shostakovich. From my point of view, from the conductor's perspective - where my role really is to be the messenger of the composer - it's very, very difficult to separate the man from the political environment he found himself in, because of course that did influence everything he wrote. Yet at the same time it's so paradoxical and ambiguous as to what his particular viewpoints were because, of course, during the Stalinist regime he really couldn't make any viewpoint known except subtly through his music.

SIMON: One of the pieces we want to ask you about is The Bolt.

Ms. ALSOP: Yes, this was music for a ballet score, originally. And of course...

SIMON: Premiered in Leningrad in 1931, I'm told.

Ms. ALSOP: Right. And it depicts, you know, the loyal and industrious factory workers and what they're up against. And so on the surface, of course, it's an extremely programmatic and almost scripted musical experience.

(Soundbite of The Bolt)

SIMON: And what do you hear there when you listen to it?

Ms. ALSOP: I hear, first of all, you know, starting with the snare drum and then the brass fanfare, I mean this couldn't be more patriotic in almost any country. This was a very, I think, appropriate political statement. But then I hear the subtext of this faint theme - bom, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bom, bop, bop - from Tchaikovsky, the opening of the Fourth Symphony, which is all about the inescapability of fate. So there's this backdrop of irony and sarcasm from Shostakovich - and of course that's an important element through all of his works.

SIMON: He was in his mid-20s when he wrote this.

Ms. ALSOP: Quite young, yeah.

SIMON: Nothing else if not authoritative sounding.

Ms. ALSOP: Yes, extremely. And of course I wish I could have met the man, but he was apparently, you know, anything but a really authoritative figure in person. He was quite fragile.

SIMON: One of the sections of the ballet is called The Bureaucrat, which these days wouldn't seem to have winner written all over it as the title for a single.

Ms. ALSOP: Right.

SIMON: But I wonder if can listen to it a bit.

(Soundbite of The Bureaucrat):

SIMON: A bassoon and piccolo?

Ms. ALSOP: Yes.

(Soundbite of The Bureaucrat):

SIMON: There's a wryness to that, which I wasn't expecting.

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, yeah, tremendous. I mean, you can just see these ignorant bureaucrats interacting and stumbling over each other. And it also shows a side of Shostakovich that we rarely talk about, which a lighter side and a side that was filled with overt humor.

SIMON: Another early work you're interested in is Shostakovich's Second Jazz Suite, which he composed in 1938. Let's listen to this.

(Soundbite of Second Jazz Suite)

Ms. ALSOP: This opening section is more on the lines of a march. But throughout this suite you hear a variety of styles, particularly in the waltz sections, which are kind of along the lines of the jazz waltzes. And what I notice about this piece, which is so fascinating, is that the instrumentation is very unusual. If you hear the accordion going along in there and you hear a variety of saxophones, these are unusual instruments to include in the standard orchestra.

SIMON: And I'm told that Stanley Kubrick used a section called the Second Waltz as the title music for his last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

(Soundbite of Second Waltz)

SIMON: The versatility of which you speak about, how much of that was Shostakovich's own restlessness and curiosity? And was some of it ultimately mandated by the fact that he fell out of favor with Joseph Stalin and no longer had the kind of state imprimatur that he used to have?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, again, with Shostakovich it's probably a combination of many, many, many elements. And that's why having this year of celebration is such a wonderful opportunity to really explore the multi-dimensions to this composer. Because he could write anything he wanted. He also explored chamber music tremendously - string quartets. He wrote 15 amazing string quartets. And in those he goes really to the edge of stylistic avant-garde. You know, he's writing a lot of 12-tone music and he's really pushing the envelope, because he knows that the chamber music is not going to be heard by as wide an audience and critiqued by the bureaucrats that he's so concerned about.

SIMON: But speaking of the Shostakovich most be people know...

Ms. ALSOP: Right.

SIMON: ...undoubtedly, I guess, the Fifth Symphony is his most famous work. He wrote it in 1937, must be said at the height of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union. Let's listen, if we could, to the first movement.

(Soundbite of Fifth Symphony)

SIMON: What do you hear, Maestra?

Ms. ALSOP: I think everyone hears immediately this unbelievable conflict. And then within a span of about 10 seconds what to me is complete apathy and almost desolation. This is the first piece Shostakovich writes after he's been really pretty much blacklisted as a composer. I mean, no one was allowed to play his music, so this symphony is very important on every single level. This is his response to the critics and to all the people that pushed him away.

(Soundbite of Fifth Symphony)

SIMON: There's a story I've heard - and perhaps you know it too - that in the late '40s, the second time he fell out of favor, he slept on the stoop of his apartment building because he expected that they could come for him any time, and he wanted to be able to alert his family.

Ms. ALSOP: Right. And I think to be an artist - I mean someone who's supposed to have a certain sense of freedom of creativity - it must have been a desperate kind of life.

SIMON: Let's listen also, if we could, to the beginning of the second movement.

(Soundbite of Fifth Symphony)

Ms. ALSOP: To me this is a movement that's doing a variety of things. It's parodying the tradition of the minuet, you know, in the symphony. And it's also paying tribute to - his idol at this time, of course, was Mahler. And Mahler's music was not really permitted in the Soviet Union. So this was a covert fondness he had for Mahler. Also, this particular movement draws some themes from Shostakovich's own Fourth Symphony, which was never performed at that time because it was banned. It was during his period of not being in favor.

So there are all these elements at play for me in this second movement of the symphony.

SIMON: Is one of the messages of Shostakovich's music and life sometimes genius will find a way to bury the messages, to make them implicit to a pair of sensitive ears to discover what they're really trying to communicate?

Ms. ALSOP: For me Shostakovich, I think, first and foremost is about a depth of emotion that an artist is not afraid to plunder. You know, he's willing to go to, I think, very dark places. And for me that's really what his artistry is about.

SIMON: Maestra, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. ALSOP: It's been a great pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: Marin Alsop takes over next year as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She currently conducts the Bournemouth Symphony in Great Britain.

(Soundbite of Fifth Symphony)

SIMON: And the Maestra offers her thoughts in an essay about Shostakovich, and an expert recommends 3D - three CDs - forgive me - of the composer's music at our Web site,

(Soundbite of Fifth Symphony)

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hearing History in Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony

Alsop discusses Shostakovich on Weekend Edition Saturday

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich poses during a recording session for the French record label Pathe Marconi in Paris, May 23, 1958. hide caption

toggle caption

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich poses during a recording session for the French record label Pathe Marconi in Paris, May 23, 1958.

Scroll down for a list of three must-have Shostakovich recordings.

Symphony No. 5

Hear samples of the music:

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

— New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting.

Aside from the obvious marketing hooks, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich this week gives us an opportunity to delve more deeply into the less-explored music and dimensions of the man.

In a world where soundbites dominate and categorization abounds, Shostakovich presents a challenge to define. It was his fate to be a monumental creative talent living in the Soviet Union — one of history's most restrictive, whimsical, and repressive regimes. Not surprisingly, then, his life and work are marked by paradox and ambiguity.

For me, nothing expresses that duality and struggle as much as his Symphony No. 5, written at the height of the Stalinist purges of 1937, when millions of Soviet citizens were forcibly relocated, exiled and/or killed outright. Shostakovich was emerging from a period of total musical banishment with his fifth symphony, calling it "a response to my critics."

Against that backdrop, how can we not listen to the work without reading between the notes? Is the blatant patriotic fervor emblematic of Shostakovich's desire to please his comrades, or a genuine outburst of love for his homeland? Or is it an extreme form of irony, ingeniously straddling both sides of a dangerous abyss?

From the opening battle between upper and lower strings to the complete desolation and apathy of the violin melody a few bars later, imagining Shostakovich's personal viewpoint can't help but have an impact on how to interpret his music in a heightened way.

For example, how fast should it be played? At the very end of the symphony, Shostakovich's original tempo marking is quite slow. But Leonard Bernstein doubled the tempo in his recording with the New York Philharmonic, and Shostakovich thought it worked very well.

For me, this is a defining moment in the symphony, determined by the entirety of the last movement, and even the journey of the entire piece. I hear the last movement as a gradual acceleration of forces, an increasing sense of hysteria and loss of control until things break down and the fanfare (like the theme) becomes almost nightmarish in sound.

For me, this is an important trasformation. It signals a moment of weakness and affects how I approach the coda — the sort of "summary statement." Shostakovich ends by offering an opening for hopefulness, for a certain nobility in survival. Therefore, I take a tempo that is not too fast nor too slow, neither giddy nor funereal.

I think it's only natural that Shostakovich has become a receptacle for people's polarized political viewpoints. Revisionist, anti-revisionist, comrade, revolutionary? Perhaps this anniversary year will afford us a chance to look at Shostakovich not only as the complex, conflicted being he must have been in that environment, but also purely as a human being who possessed a wonderful sense of humor and a lightness of being.

Just listen to his arrangement of "Tea for Two" or his jazz suites. These are not often celebrated aspects of Dimitri Shostakovich, but perhaps we will have time this year to avoid the predictable in exploring this profound artist.

Three Must-Have Shostakovich Recordings

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, 6 concertos and hours of film scores during his career. Erich Auerbach/Corbis hide caption

toggle caption
Erich Auerbach/Corbis

Musicians on Shostakovich

Conductor Valery Gergiev: His Lighter Side

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Conductor Leon Botstein: Neither Hero nor Martyr

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Botstein: His 'Ironic Powerlessness'

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Cellist David Finckel: Man and His Music

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Finckel: Stalin's Effect

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Immersing yourself in Dmitri Shostakovich's complete works would take days, but familiarizing yourself with his music should take no more than an afternoon. And it will not be painful.

Simon Morrison, a Russian music scholar at Princeton University, says Shostakovich "was a composer interested in social discourse. He sought to engage, rather than alienate, his audiences."

Morrison picks three of the most engaging Shostakovich pieces, noting that "these three works, clustered relatively close together in Shostakovich's career, represent the different facets of his general style."

The Style: Subversive Neoclassicism

The Composition: Third String Quartet in F Major, 1946 — "A typical early piece," says Morrison, noting that there's "almost an element of ugliness built into the texture" of the music.

Must-Have CD: Shostakovich: The String Quartets by the Emerson String Quartet, which won 2 Grammys for a 5-disc box set featuring all of Shostakovich's 15 string quartets.

The Style: Bombastic (and Marvelously Noisy) Heroism

The Composition: Fifth Symphony, 1937 — A "landmark heroic period piece" that was Shostakovich's attempt to "conform to Soviet-era symphonies," says Morrision. The traditional structure and instrumentation evoke a "narrative representation of a hero's life and death."

Must-Have CD: Shostakovich: Symphonie, No. 5, Op. 47 by Yevgeny Mravinsky

The Style: Brooding Introspection

The Composition: Piano Trio in E Minor, 1944 — A "masterpiece of compelling dark somber melodic lines" that suggests a "tragic, internal depression," says Morrison. He notes that the melody is beautiful and the texture beguiling.

Must-Have CD: Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky: Trios by Argerich, Kremer and Maisky