Sophia Gorlin

Shostakovich's Piano Sonata No. 2

Dedicated to the Centennial of Dmitri Shostakovich


Variety of genres. Shostakovich and Beethoven—analogies and differences.
Three periods of life and works. Shostakovich and Stalinism.
‘Aesopian’ Language.

Dmitri Shostakovich, whose centennial was celebrated last year, has become one of the most influential musical figures of the past century and one of the greatest composers of all time, creating musical masterpieces in such opposing genres as popular film music1 and intimate chamber music, musical miniatures and large-scale symphonic and theatrical works.2

Composing music in both ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ genres, Shostakovich attained unrivalled popularity in Soviet society. Along with very few composers in music history (Beethoven among them), he was recognized as a living genius by both amateurs and connoisseurs. In drawing a further analogy between Beethoven’s and Shostakovich’s lives, one should keep in mind that Beethoven turned to a more complex music language (broad usage of counterpoint, linearism, ‘open’ forms) mostly in his late works. Shostakovich, the composer of the ‘modernist’ era, applied modern (‘avant-garde’) language based on a new understanding of tonality (‘expanded’ tonality up to atonality) in many of his early works.

In a similar way to Beethoven’s life and works, Shostakovich’s long artistic life can be split into three periods: early, middle and late.

The early or ‘avant-garde’ period spans the years 1919 (the year of his first composition) to approximately 1936 (the year of his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies). It is mainly marked by an eclecticism of style (most of Shostakovich’s early works are still very much influenced by the styles of other composers such as Mahler, Prokofiev, Stravinsky), and a search for his own individual style. This period ends with the composer’s first denunciation by the Soviet government who urged Shostakovich to ‘simplify’ his musical language.

The middle period spans from 1936 to 1953 (the year of Soviet dictator Stalin’s death and the creation of his Tenth Symphony). This period features the composer’s formulation of the major principles of his individual style and the creation of his greatest symphonies (from the Fifth to the Tenth), as well as chamber works. During this period, his musical language was becoming more ‘conservative’, mainly tonal (about Shostakovich’s treatment of a tonal centre, see later sections of this article).

The late period spans from about 19533 to 1975. This period features a concentration on intimate chamber works (ten out of his fifteen string quartets were created in the late period) and experimentation with atonality and tone rows. The final years are marked by the composition of requiem-like works, which reflect thoughts of life and death (notably the Fourteenth Symphony and the Fifteenth Quartet). Amazingly, despite increasing physical weakness, there was no ‘declining’ period in Shostakovich’s creative life. The composer was artistically productive until his final year (seven opuses are dated 1975, including his outstanding Sonata for Viola and Piano).

When examining the number of works Shostakovich created, one should always remember that he was living and composing in Soviet Russia at the time of Stalinism and of Communist power, under an immense and constant pressure from the government’s continual attempts to control his compositional process. Solomon Volkov wrote that: ‘These were unimaginably cruel times, when Shostakovich’s friends, patrons, and family members suddenly disappeared, drawn into the maelstrom of Stalinist repression.’ In spite of being overwhelmed by an appalling fear for his own life and the lives of his loved ones, ‘Shostakovich managed not only to keep his sanity, but also to write some of the most enduring, almost shockingly expressive, and at the same time touchingly humane music of the twentieth century.’4

Shostakovich, unlike many other distinguished Soviet artists, whose lives were destroyed by the Soviet regime (and many of whom committed suicide), possessed an amazing ability to respond to brutality and humiliation with musical masterpieces in which he expressed all of his genuine feelings. Much like Beethoven, Shostakovich desperately struggled most of his life to survive with a full understanding of his mission – to bring everlasting music to the world.

Several ways of ‘complying with the regime’ should be mentioned:

  1. Following his first denunciation in 1936 (Stalin’s article Muddle Instead of Music in the Communist newspaper Pravda), Shostakovich decided to abandon his operatic ambitions, thus avoiding Stalin’s restrictions over the libretto. Maxim Shostakovich recalls that at this terrible time, being publicly disgraced and humiliated, Shostakovich promised that: ‘Even if they cut off my hands, I will put a pen between my teeth and I will write music this way’.5 ‘Pure’ musical genres (mostly symphonies and chamber music) have now become the composer’s ‘diary’, his ‘hidden place’ where he could express his real thoughts and feelings.

  2. After his second denunciation in 1948 (Zhdanov decree), Shostakovich was forced to compromise with the government and to become a Soviet representative at an international conference in the United States. The provoked much negative press resulted in a very negative relationship between Shostakovich and many American commentators. The composer was forced to compromise on certain other issues as well. In 1960, in order to become a Chief of the Composers’ Union of the Russian Federation, Shostakovich was obliged to become a member of the Communist Party. He told his children after the event that: ‘I am dragged to the Party’. He was crying and deeply depressed. His musical response to these coercive actions was his ‘autobiographical’ Eighth String Quartet.

  3. Most importantly, Shostakovich masterfully used the so-called ‘Aesopian’ language6 in the majority of his best works of the middle and late periods. The composer’s contemporaries might have unravelled some of his allegories, but many have yet to be fully understood. Through the necessity to speak allegorically in his music, ‘Shostakovich became the Russian second (Mussorgsky was the first) great yurodivy composer.’7

One of the earliest but a perfect example of Shostakovich’s ‘Aesopianlanguage is the finale of his Fifth Symphony (completed in 1937, the cruelest year of the ‘Great Terror’ period). It should be remembered that the Fifth Symphony was expected to respond to Stalin’s article in Pravda, and in order to be able to continue working and simply physically survive, the composer had to appease Party censors by writing music that was triumphant and optimistic (and this, in the year 1937!) Shostakovich, like many other representatives of the artistic intelligentsia,8 found himself in a situation in which ‘you are beaten and yet you are not allowed to cry’. This is perfectly illustrated in the ‘triumphant’ coda of the finale of the Fifth. The meaning of this music has been disputed for many years because of its obvious ambiguity. The coda does initially appear to be triumphant (D Major chords, orchestral tutti, fortissimo), but the listener eventually feels some tension, nervousness and a discomfort that is almost physical in this music. What makes this happen? What obscures the bright, major-sounding sonorities in this coda? The answer emerges from a close look at the score. See Example 1.

Example 1. The Fifth Symphony, Finale, coda.

Bracketed are the B flats in the trumpet and trombone parts.

Example 1

The brass gradually reach Bb (lowered 6th degree in D Major)9 in the very climax of the episode, turning consonant triadic chords into dissonant bellowing sonorities accompanied by a constant ‘trampling’ rhythm in the basses.10 The extent of this episode further increases the sensation of discomfort. People cry when listening to this music. They are ecstatic, but their ecstasy is affected by acute sadness. A greater sense of understanding comes when the work is finally over. Solomon Volkov wrote about the reception of the premiere of the Fifth Symphony: ‘When the last notes sounded, there was pandemonium, as there would be at almost all later Soviet premieres of Shostakovich’s major works. Many wept. Shostakovich’s work represented the effort of an honest and thoughtful artist confronted by a decisive choice under conditions of great moral stress. “This is not music; this is high-voltage, nervous electricity,” noted a moved listener of the Fifth, which to this day remains Shostakovich’s most admired work. The symphony made it clear that he spoke for his generation, and Shostakovich became a symbol for decades.’11 The composer expressed himself regarding this finale later in his life, ‘I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth…it’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing”, and you rise, shakily, and go off muttering, “our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.”12 Shostakovich did manage to outsmart his censors; he ingeniously figured out how to reflect genuine reality – through the notion of tragedy placed under the sign of triumph.

» Next: Piano Sonata No. 2—an Important Landmark in the Evolution of Shostakovich’s Individual Style


1 Shostakovich composed the film music in different periods of his life mainly through the necessity to support his family while his major opuses (symphonies, quartets, etc.) were ‘banned’; nevertheless, there are many masterpieces among his compositions in this genre.

2 Shostakovich’s unique productivity and rate of creative output can be compared, in my view, only to Mozart’s. As his son Maxim Shostakovich recalled, ‘Shostakovich composed music without a piano, just sitting at the table and writing the score.’ [(I. V. Zacharov (ed), Maxim and Galina Shostakovich, Our Father DSch (Michael Ardov). Moscow, 2003)]. The music was conceived entirely in his mind.

3 Another possible version – 1960, the year of his outstanding ‘autobiographic’ Eighth String Quartet.

4 S. Volkov, op. cit., Preface.

5 I. V. Zacharov, op. cit., p. 168.

6 Dictionaries explain this idiom as using or having ambiguous or allegorical meanings, especially to elude political censorship.

7 S. Volkov (ed), Testimony. The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. (1979), Introduction, p. XXV (by S. Volkov). About the definition and explanation of the Russian word ‘yurodstvo’, read pp. XXV – XXVII.

8 Another Russian term that can be lost in translation; literally means: intelligent, highly educated people.

9 Shostakovich frequently uses a major scale with the lowered 6th degree, which is called a harmonic major in the European music theory system (analogous to the harmonic minor with the augmented second between the 6th and 7th scale degrees).

10 The coda of the Fifth Symphony is one of the early examples where Shostakovich applied the harmonic version of his uniquely found mode structure based on the diminished tetrachords (in our example – F# - G - A – Bb in D Major. In the Sonata, this same structure is applied to a B minor environment, which is clearly the ‘UDT’ – see the following discussion on page 4).

11 S. Volkov, Testimony, XXXI.

12 Quoted in Richard Taruskin, Interpreting Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, p. 32. In Fanning (ed) Shostakovich Studies.

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