Dmitri Shostakovich

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Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (25 September 19069 August 1975) was a Soviet composer and pianist. Many of his works mark the epochs of Soviet history, or explore his own position as an artist in a communist state. Since his death there has been much controversy as to his private political views.


  • I live in the USSR, work actively and count naturally on the worker and peasant spectator. If I am not comprehensible to them I should be deported.
    • In discussion with an opera audience, January 14, 1930; cited from Laurel Fay Shostakovich: A Life (2000) p. 55.
  • There can be no music without ideology. The old composers, whether they knew it or not, were upholding a political theory. Most of them, of course, were bolstering the rule of the upper classes. Only Beethoven was a forerunner of the revolutionary movement. If you read his letters, you will see how often he wrote to his friends that he wished to give new ideas to the public and rouse it to revolt against its masters.
  • What can be considered human emotions? Surely not only lyricism, sadness, tragedy? Doesn't laughter also have a claim to that lofty title? I want to fight for the legitimate right of laughter in "serious" music.
    • From an article in Sovetskoye Iskusstvo, November 5, 1934; translation from Laurel Fay Shostakovich: A Life (2000) p. 77.
  • If they cut off both hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth.
    • Said to Isaac Glikman, 1936; cited from Laurel Fay Shostakovich: A Life (2000) p. 92.
  • I always try to make myself as widely understood as possible, and if I don't succeed I consider it's my own fault.
  • A great piece of music is beautiful regardless of how it is performed. Any prelude or fugue of Bach can be played at any tempo, with or without rhythmic nuances, and it will still be great music. That's how music should be written, so that no-one, no matter how philistine, can ruin it.
    • Letter to Isaac Glikman, August 28, 1955; Josiah Fisk & Jeff Nichols (eds.) Composers on Music (1997) p. 364.
  • A creative artist works on his next composition because he is not satisfied with his previous one. When he loses a critical attitude toward his own work, he ceases to be an artist.
  • I don't think that either self-deprecation or self-aggrandizement is among the defining qualities of an artist…Beethoven could have been forgiven if his symphonies had gone to his head. Gretchaninoff could also be forgiven if his Dobrinya Nikititch went to his head. But neither one could be forgiven for writing a piece that was amoral, servile, the work of a flunky.
    • Letter to Isaac Glikman, February 26, 1960; Josiah Fisk & Jeff Nichols (eds.) Composers on Music (1997) p. 354.
  • Music is a means capable of expressing dark dramatism and pure rapture, suffering and ecstasy, fiery and cold fury, melancholy and wild merriment – and the subtlest nuances and interplay of these feelings which words are powerless to express and which are unattainable in painting and sculpture.
    • "The Power of Music" (1964), translated in Music Journal, September 1965, p. 37.
  • Real music is always revolutionary, for it cements the ranks of the people; it arouses them and leads them onward.
    • "The Power of Music" (1964), translated in Music Journal, September 1965, p. 37.
  • The real geniuses know where their writing has to be good and where they can get away with some mediocrity.
    • In conversation with Isaac Glikman, July 4, 1966; Josiah Fisk & Jeff Nichols (eds.) Composers on Music (1997) p. 355.
  • You ask if I would have been different without "Party guidance"? Yes, almost certainly. No doubt the line I was pursuing when I wrote the Fourth Symphony would have been stronger and sharper in my work. I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm, I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage.
    • In conversation with Flora Litvinova, 1970; cited from Elizabeth Wilson Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994) pp. 425-6.
  • What do you think of Puccini?
    [ Britten: "I think his operas are dreadful." ]
    No, Ben, you are wrong. He wrote marvellous operas, but dreadful music.

Testimony (1979)


Testimony is a posthumously published memoir supposedly dictated by Shostakovich in private conversations with the journalist Solomon Volkov. Its authenticity has been hotly disputed. English quotations and page-numbers here are taken from the translation by Antonina W. Bouis (New York: Limelight, 2004).

  • The most uninteresting part of the biography of a composer is his childhood. All those preludes are the same and the reader hurries on to the fugue.
    • Page 6
  • It's about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.
  • The withering away of illusions is a long and dreary process, like a toothache. But you can pull out a tooth. Illusions, dead, continue to rot within us. And stink. And you can't escape them. I carry all of mine around with me.
    • Page 85
  • For some reason, people think that music must tell us only about the pinnacles of the human spirit, or at least about highly romantic villains. Most people are average, neither black nor white. They're gray. A dirty shade of gray. And it's in that vague gray middle ground that the fundamental conflicts of our age take place.
    • Page 94
  • The Allies enjoyed my music, as though trying to say: Look how we like Shostakovich's symphonies, and you still want something more from us, a second front or something.
    • Page 137
  • I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but I feel no less pain for those killed on Stalin's orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot, or starved to death.
    • Page 155
  • The majority of my symphonies are tombstones.
    • Page 156
  • Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it, it's multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It's almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music.
    • Page 156
  • People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko's poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.
    • Page 159
  • When a man is in despair, it means that he still believes in something.
    • Page 175
  • I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing," and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, "Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing."
    • Page 183.
  • I write music, it's performed. It can be heard, and whoever wants to hear it will. After all, my music says it all. It doesn't need historical and hysterical commentaries. In the long run, any words about music are less important than the music.
    • Page 196
  • What you have in your head, put down on paper. The head is a fragile vessel.
    • Page 229

About Shostakovich and his music

  • Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all...Here we have "leftist" confusion instead of natural human music. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, "formalist" attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.
  • Pornophony.
    • From a 1935 review of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in the New York Sun, quoted in Richard Taruskin Defining Russia Musically (1997) p. 505.
  • Neuhaus was sitting next to him at a performance…that was being badly conducted by Alexander Gauk. Neuhaus leaned over to whisper in Shostakovich’s ear: “Dmitry Dmitrievich, this is awful.” Whereupon Shostakovich turned to Neuhaus: “You’re right, Heinrich Gustavovich! It’s splendid! Quite remarkable!” Realising that he’d been misunderstood, Neuhaus repeated his earlier remark: “Yes,” muttered Shostakovich, “it’s awful, quite awful.”
    That was Shostakovich to the life.
    • Sviatoslav Richter, in Monsaingeon, Bruno (2001). Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations
  • Not since the time of Berlioz has a symphonic composer created such a stir. In far-away America, great conductors vie with each other for the jus primae noctis of his music. The score of his Seventh Symphony, the symphony of struggle and victory, has been reduced to a roll of microfilm and flown half-way across the speed the day of the American première. How the old romantics would have loved to be the center of such a fantastic adventure!
    • Nicolas Slonimsky in The Musical Quarterly, 1942; reprinted in his Writings on Music (2005), p. 84.
  • He did not write about this war and that revolution, but about war and revolution in general, the state of mind and emotion, not facts.
    • Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, September 24, 2006.
  • Many consider that Shostakovich is the greatest 20th-century composer. In his 15 symphonies, 15 quartets, and in other works he demonstrated mastery of the largest and most challenging forms with music of great emotional power and technical invention…All his works are marked by emotional extremes – tragic intensity, grotesque and bizarre wit, humour, parody, and savage sarcasm.
  • He is thinner, taller, younger – more boyish-looking – than expected, but he is also the shyest and most nervous human being I have ever seen. He chews not merely his nails but his fingers, twitches his pouty mouth and chin, chain-smokes, wiggles his nose in constant adjustment of his spectacles, looks querulous one moment and ready to cry the next. His hands tremble, he stutters, his whole frame wobbles when he shakes hands…There is no betrayal of the thoughts behind those frightened, very intelligent eyes.
  • Part of the task, of course, is simply insisting that female experience is human experience and worthy of being explored in Shostakovich said (speaking of Yevtoshenko’s Babi Yar poem mourning the massacre of the Jews of Kiev during World War II, defying the official cover-up), “Art destroys silence.” To bring what is silenced into speech is to make a space.
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