This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.
Skip to main contentAccess keys helpA-Z index
BBC Learning English Launch BBC Media Player
  • Help
  • Text only
You are in:Learning English > News English > Words in the News
Learning English - Words in the News
25 September, 2006 - Published 14:19 GMT
Shostakovich centenary
Dmitri Shostakovich

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer described by many critics as the greatest of the twentieth century. This report from Lawrence Pollard:

Listen to the story

In the mid 1930s Shostakovich scored a great success with his opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." Then one day in early 1936 it was viciously attacked in the the newspaper Pravda in a review entitled "Muddle not Music" attributed to Stalin himself. At a time when artists who displeased authority were liable to simply disappear Shostakovich was in great danger, but he survived, possibly because of his popular work for Soviet films and propaganda.

By the time of his death in 1975 he was seen as a solid Soviet artist, but a few years later his reputation was turned on its head by the publication of a highly controversial account of his life called "Testimony". This claimed that Shostakovich secretly hated Stalin and the Soviet system, and that his works held hidden dissident meanings. Critics in the West seized on this new image of an anticommunist Shostakovich, but others pointed out how hard it is to interpret private motives under a climate of fear.

Certainly Shostakovich was lucky to work in a wordless abstract medium, where interpretation is strongly subjective. But it does appears at least some of his original audience did find oppositional power in his work, but as a member of the party and the Supreme Soviet Shostakovich also allowed his name to be put on denunciations of dissidents. Certainly no composer has undergone so radical a reevaluation. But what can't be argued is that his 15 symphonies and smaller scale chamber music make him a musical giant of his time, whatever the political meanings we find in his art.

Lawrence Pollard, BBC

Listen to the words

scored a great success
was very popular and successful

viciously attacked
seriously criticised

here, likely

an organised programme of publicity and selected information used to spread a certain practice or theory (usually has a negative connotation)

turned on its head
changed to the opposite

controversial account
narration or description that is disputed or causing disagreement

disagreeing with the government

seized on

a wordless abstract medium
here, music, i.e. art with no words or images, nothing concrete

public statements in which you criticize someone or something

27 May, 2011
Destruction of smallpox virus delayed
25 May, 2011
Micro-finance 'misused and abused'
20 May, 2011
Lonely planets
18 May, 2011
Germany to invest in more electric cars
16 May, 2011
Argentina builds a tower of books
Other Stories