Skip to page content

We have an interesting picture of Dmitri Shostakovich from Sergei Prokofiev’s son Oleg. Oleg recounts a time that he went to visit Shostakovich in the early 1950s:

“He never seemed to stop moving. He would continually change his position on the chair, as if he never felt comfortable, crossing one leg over the other, then swapping legs; then a slipper would fall off, and he would try and pick it up from the floor and put it back on; then he would drop it again. Occasionally he would try to light a cigarette, but matches kept breaking, and the cigarette would refuse to light…”

Shostakovich had very good reason for being a nervous man. During the reign of Stalin, Shostakovich spent much of his time playing cat-and-mouse games with the culture police; always trying to push his artistic boundaries outwards without offending Stalin by seeming too formalist.

Shostakovich the composer has taken a lot of flack from Western musicologists for seeming to capitulate to the whims of Stalin and his henchmen. There is the well-known example of his composing the crowd-pleasing Fifth Symphony in order to gain the graces of the Communist Party, following the negative reaction by the official press to his Fourth Symphony.

Shostakovich’s side of the story was revealed after his death with the publication of Testimony – The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. There is now a lively debate about the authenticity of the book, and some scholars believe that Shostakovich’s amanuensis and editor, Solomon Volkov, fabricated much of the narrative [page 42]. But even if taken with a grain of salt, it is interesting to consider how Shostakovich might have perceived the place of the artist in the Stalinist order of things when he relates:

“An artist whose portrait did not resemble the leader disappeared forever. So did the writer who used ‘crude words.’ No one entered into aesthetic discussions with them or asked them to explain themselves. Someone came for them at night. That’s all. These were not isolated cases, not exceptions. You must understand that.”

We then get a sense of where his shaky nerves came from: “It didn’t matter how the audience reacted to your work or if the critics liked it. All that had no meaning in the final analysis. There was only one question of life or death: how did the leader like your opus? I stress: life or death, because we are talking about life or death here, literally, not figuratively. That’s what you must understand.”

In Testimony, Shostakovich relates numerous stories about his colleagues who disappeared in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again. (This had happened, for example, to the Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, an outspoken Shostakovich supporter, in 1948.) Shostakovich constantly lived in fear that the same thing would happen to him.

The story behind the creation of the Festive Overture is one of those fantastic tales which reveals the true nature of a composer’s genius, leaving all of the eye-witnesses shaking their heads in wonder. Shostakovich’s friend Lev Lebedinsky related the story of how one time, when he was hanging out at the composer’s apartment one day in the fall of 1954, they were visited by a conductor from the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra. Due to mysterious political maneuverings and bureaucratic snafus, the orchestra needed a new work to celebrate the October Revolution, and the concert was in three days.

Shostakovich had his friend Lebedinsky sit down next to him and began to compose. Lebedinsky relates:

“The speed with which he wrote was truly astounding. Moreover, when he wrote light music he was able to talk, make jokes and compose simultaneously, like the legendary Mozart. He laughed and chuckled, and in the meanwhile work was under way and the music was being written down.”

There is not a trace of haste or carelessness in the vibrant Festive Overture. Shostakovich always composed at a fast pace, writing down the notes with superhuman facility. We will never know whether or not he employed musical ideas which were already lurking in his imagination, or whether the entire work was simply an instantaneous flash of inspiration. It is amusing however to think of Shostakovich “laughing and chuckling” as he composed, for it is easy to imagine the pervasiveness of the composer’s good humor driving this energetic, truly festive work.

Incidentally, Shostakovich, who (as we have seen) had shaky nerves, conducted an orchestra professionally on only one occasion, at a concert organized by his friend Mstislav Rostropovich in 1962. Shostakovich opened the concert with his Festive Overture.

Ryan Dorin is a Ph.D. composition student at New York University and annotates programs for the Washington Square Contemporary Music Series.