Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, at the dawn of Czardom and a time of growing unrest among the people. At the break-out of the 1917 Russian revolution, Shostakovich was 11 years old and composed a funeral march for its victims, perhaps an early revelation of his rebellious, revolutionary spirit. Not just the old Shostakovich as we know him, but also the young composer was a revolutionary. Soon after admission into the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Shostakovich attracted the interest of others and irritated his teachers. Aleksandr Glazunov, the director, disliked Shostakovich’s music, found it “ghastly” and stated: “This is the first music I can’t hear when I read the score”. Yet Glazunov also added: “But that isn’t what’s important: the future belongs to this boy, not to me.”

As Russia overcame monarchy, so did Shostakovich overcome the late romantic period in music. In the very beginning of his career as a composer, Shostakovich experimented with elements of the avant-garde, such as futurism and atonality, but soon found his own style, a very individual mixture of convention and revolution, solid compositional craftsmanship and fantasy-full rhythm, traditional form and modern melody plus harmony. From time to time, he even took excursions into the world of jazz. Shostakovich was an outstandingly fast and productive composer. He created 15 symphonies and is known as one of the most important symphonic composers of the 20th century. Nevertheless, his work also includes 15 string quartets, 2 full operas, one operetta, three ballets, concerts for various instruments, piano- and chamber music as well as film music.

The enormous work load and the political pressure imposed on Shostakovich as an artist of the Soviet Union must have affected him immensely. Although internationally presented as flagship-composer of the socialist regime, the attitude of Soviet leadership towards Shostakovich was subject to permanent changes. Shostakovich refused to leave his Russian homeland for foreign exile and was at times regarded a conformist, yet at other times considered incompatible with socialist realism. It is not far-fetched to assume that these conflicts might have superimposed on Shostakovich’s already weak physical health. Shostakovich suffered from tuberculosis in his teens, and later on developed myelitis which might be compatible with amyothrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neuron disease (MND) or Lou Gehrig’s disease (see Pascuzzi et al., 1999 and Kalapatapu et al., 2010). After undergoing a fracture of the leg in 1967, Shostakovich’s ability to walk remained impaired through his death in the year 1975 in a Moscow hospital.

Author: Stefan Fuchs (Translation: Manfred Hecking)