Dmitri Shostakovich the best-known composer of the Soviet era was born on September 25th, 1906, in St. Petersburg to a cultured family that sided with left-wing political groups. His paternal grandfather, Boleslav Shostakovich, was active as a revolutionary in the 1860s, while his father, Dmitri Boleslavovich, was a government engineer who supported trade unions. His mother, Sofia Vassilyevna, was a piano teacher who gave Dmitri Dmitrievich his first lessons at age eight before he entered the Petrograd Conservatory at thirteen. He then received training in piano from Leonid Nikolayev, training in composition from Maximilian Steinberg, and encouragement from conservatory headsman Alexander Glazunov, himself a notable composer.
Shostakovich was considered promising by the conservatory staff; he was active as a student composer and wrote his First Symphony as a graduation piece in 1925. It was so impressive a work that it premiered in Leningrad, Berlin, and Philadelphia, vaulting Shostakovich to the forefront of Soviet art.
He had a complex relationship with the Soviet government, suffering two official denunciations of his music in 1936 and 1948 and the periodic banning of his work. Always afraid of official condemnation, he followed the leads of Ludwig van Beethoven, Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, and Modest Mussorgsky by writing music with profound themes buried underneath dominant themes of a banal nature and completely opposite sentiment. At the same time, he remained the most popular Soviet composer of his generation and received a number of accolades and state awards, and served in the Supreme Soviet.
After an initial avant-garde period, Shostakovich wrote primarily in the romantic idiom, drawing heavily on the influence of Mahler. He, however, combined this with atonality and on occasion tone rows. His music frequently includes sharp contrasts and elements of the grotesque. His greatest works are generally considered to be his symphonies and string quartets, fifteen of each; other works include operas, six concertos and a substantial quantity of film music, he wrote 36 film scores including those for prize-winning films Encounter at the Elbe and The Fall of Berlin.
He counted amongst his Soviet friends and colleagues such musical giants as Rostropovich, Mravinsky, Richter, David Oistrakh and Emil Gilels.
In later life, Shostakovich suffered from chronic ill-health from 1958 he suffered from a debilitating condition which particularly affected his right hand, eventually forcing him to give up piano playing, in 1965 this was diagnosed as polio. He also suffered heart attacks the following year and again in 1971.
Shostakovich died on August 9th 1975 in Moscow. He was given a state burial and recognized by the world press as an outstanding composer of our time. Unlike other Soviet composers who benefited from political fortune rather than artistic merit, Shostakovich remains an international phenomenon whose music is performed constantly.