Was Shostakovich the greatest 20th century composer?

The story of Shostakovich's life and music is a struggle between Communist ideology and one man's commentary on its madness and brutality. His 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, operas and concertos are in some ways a sobering chronicle of life under Stalin and yet the irony is that the patriotic Shostakovich believed from an early age in the duty of an artist to serve the state. This dichotomy runs through his music and critics have speculated a good deal on the codes and messages threaded throughout even his most innocuous work that reveal his true feelings towards the Russian state, even if the music conformed to Soviet ideals. And so Shostakovich was allowed to work almost without hindrance, able to function in plain view thanks to his wish to be accessible but not regressive. A fine balance to strike. Shostakovich became famous before his 21st birthday thanks to his startling First Symphony, a piece he wrote for his graduation. Although not stylistically groundbreaking, the symphony is full of the mockery in irony that would mark much of his future work. But while Symphonies numbers 2 and 3 were proud accompaniment to the success of Russian industrialisation, his opera The Nose, about a St Petersburg official's nose that takes on a life of its own, has more than a hint of parody about it. And the Fifth Symphony, hailed by the authorities as optimistic and full of the joy of living, is less triumphant more hysterical. Shostakovich's obedience the party line seems to have been little more than a veneer. But still in 1948 Shostakovich fell foul again of the government, was dismissed from his teaching post and concentrated on film music until Stalin died in 1953. And from then on we see Shostakovich's most biting work as well as the premieres of pieces written during Stalinist repression that might have got him into serious hot water, including the bitter Tenth Symphony with its scherzo painting a shattering portrait of Stalin. Finished in 1951, however Shostakovich only dared premiere it nine months after
the Communist leader's death. In his later years, Shostakovich made much of his musical connections, including the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich for whom he wrote both his cello concertos, and the composer Benjamin Britten both admired each other's work. If you find Shostakovich's music difficult to pin down, it's because he wrote in such a variety of styles and moods. tragic and dark one moment, hysterical the next, lusciously Romantic when the mood takes him an exquisitely intimate. There is perhaps no other 20th-century composer who encompasses so much. Thank you for listening if you enjoyed this video click the like button and subscribe Discover more classical music content at

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