Tradition and Dissent in Music: Dmitri Shostakovich
To what extent can Shostakovich’s compositions be regarded as expressions of musical dissent.
In this essay I will be discussing the influence that Dmitri Shostakovich had over what we know
today about classical music, and how he often swayed from the typical style of classical music in
his time. I will also offer examples of when he followed the style of the day, but also when he
did not and what that meant for the musicians that followed him.
Shostakovich was born on 25th September 1906 in St Petersburg, Russia. He began his journey
into classical music from the age of 9 when he started learning piano, before moving on to
study piano and composition at the Petrograd Conservatory. Throughout his career he
produced many musical works. These included 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets and 36 film
scores, as well as a few other works.
When I hear the words ‘musical tradition’, it suggests to me it is a piece of music which has
either been passed down, or different songs of a certain genre that are all very similar and are
sort of replicated from one another. It can however also mean pieces of music written by early
composers that are thought of so highly and respected that they future pieces are styled on
them. In my essay I am going to discuss three different compositions by Dmitri Shostakovich, all
of which are chamber music.
- String Quartet No.2: first movement (1944)
- String Quartet No. 7: second movement (1960)
- Piano Trio No.2 last movement (1944)
I will be considering whether these compositions were sticking to the traditional structure of
the times, or whether Shostakovich was rebelling against the Soviet ideas of the age, whilst also
showing us something of a more personal nature. Shostakovich often wrote pieces of music to
give an insight as to what was happening in his personal life, just as many artists of today do.
Chamber music was originally supposed to be played by a small number of people, using only a
few instruments. As the name aptly given to it ‘chamber’, it suggests a small room or hall,
played for a small audience. The traditional instruments you would find include: clarinet, flute,
oboe and French horn. Others are also featured.
A string quartet (specifically chamber music), originated around 1720-1820 which was called
the classical period of western music. This genre of music is traditionally made up of two violins,
a cello and a viola. Normally the players sit next to each other in a curved half circle, so as to
see each other whilst playing. This was a chosen style of Shostakovich’s as it allowed him to
open up his true meaning and allow people to listen to what was happening in his world. Music
is often used as an escape for people, whether it be people listening to their favorite track, or
they themselves creating their own piece. Such is the phrase ‘lost in the music’.
“Shostakovich also continued to produce works in a very traditional format, such as the String
Quartet No.2 (1944)”. (The Arts Past and Present Book 2, chapter 6, Tradition and Dissent in
Music: Dmitri Shostakovich, pg 204).
This quote suggests that although some of his other pieces of work were ‘repulsive and
grotesque’ (Symphony No.8 & Symphony No.9), he also wrote more pieces to appeal to his
audience and ‘fans’. Whilst maybe not all of his works were of his true opinions or feelings at
the time, he still had to produce some pieces that would be likes by the masses. Was this so
people would continue to listen to him so that later on he could share his true feelings through
As string quartets are seen as a more personal genre of music, it is no wonder that many of
these works were dedicated to family and friends, whilst his symphonies were tributes to
String Quartet No.7 is in a F sharp minor, which is often used to show something melancholy,
pain and death. In 1954, Shostakovich’s wife Nina died suddenly. Although he remarried, he
never truly got over the loss of his first wife. Shostakovich wrote many pieces dedicated to her
memory which allowed listeners to hear his pain and suffering through music. String Quartet
No.7 was dedicated to her. He showed his pain through the second movement of the quartet
(otherwise known as lento), as this is the most telling of the four movements. The music allows
the audience to understand the meaning behind the keys, which is very fitting of this piece.
Traditionally for a string quartet there are four movements. Shostakovich however only uses
three. This is another show of him breaking away from what was socially acceptable in the age.
The movements included where Allegretto, Allegro and lento. As for mentioned, lento would
express more feeling and dramatic effect, then the other three.
Piano Trio No.2 is another piece of chamber work which portrays Shostakovich’s pain and
suffering. However, it does include all four movements compared to that of the String Quartet
No.7. The instruments were piano, violin and cello. It also differed from the above because it
referred to national tragedy as well as personal suffering. During the siege of Leningrad,
600,000 people died. This ended in 1944, the same year this piece was created. The brutalities
that people had suffered, including death camps by mainly Jewish nationals, was coming to
light. This horrified Shostakovich. He also lost a close friend during this time, suddenly and
unexpectedly. Listening to this piece you can hear his sadness and pain. I think Shostakovich
stayed more traditional with this piece as it was not only a personal loss but a political and
national tragedy, and he wanted to create a piece that many could appreciate and enjoy.
Although, during the fourth movement, he did create a stir with some critics. He ended the
piece using notes that show madness and frustration at the situation he found Russia and
himself to be in. In the times, it was expected that the piece would end on a high note.
Something that would suggest peace at last and that war was over. This however was not the
case. He ended the piece instead, showing the silence of death. This makes it all seem rather
final and definite. Something that went against the Soviet Communist ideology.
As a result, many of his works were prohibited. His music inspired change, and going against
what society conveyed to be the truth.
“This movement has been interpreted as a representation of evil, of malice, of death itself,
perhaps the forces that caused Stollertinsky’s death. In this work personal and social feelings
intermingle, and they are expressed in a Jewish idiom” (Braun,1985,pg76).
This suggests that although hidden through music, his true meaning came across in his work.
This is the definition of a masterpiece. Something in which people can connect and understand
the musician’s story, just by listening to the scores.
Although people can argue that his Shostakovich’s music challenged the tradition of classical
music in the times, it can also be said that he created just that. A musical dissent.
- The Arts Past and Present Book 2, chapter 6, Tradition and Dissent in Music: Dmitri Shostakovich.
- ‘Shostakovich’ (2008) AA 100 DVD Video
- ‘Shostakovich’ (2008) AA 100 Audio CD
- AA100 The Arts Past and Present: Study Companion (Essay Planning).