Shostakovich, Man of Many Variations 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.

Shostakovich, Man of Many Variations

Shostakovich, Man of Many Variations

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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 in 1972. Getty Images hide caption

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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)

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