LESSONS

Behind the Iron Curtain: 
A Musical Analysis of an Artist Tormented

This lesson was created by Ian Grimshaw, the music teacher at the Academic Magnet High School. 
Contact him by email at: Ian_Grimshaw@charleston.k12.sc.us

A Musical Introduction to Shostakovich and his music 


In this lesson students study the biographical background of Dmitri Shostakovich and the political context in which he composed his music. Students then use their knowledge of musical vocabulary to listen critically to music composed by Shostakovich and Russian composers that preceded him. Students then compare and contrast how these works were influenced by the political climate in which they were composed. 


1. Listen to two different examples of musical works by Russian composers that preceded Shostakovich. 

2. Distribute the handout titled “Biography of Dmitri Shostakovich” and instruct students to read it (Note: This handout is posted at the end of this lesson). 

3. Ask students to explain how the music of Russian composers that preceded Shostakovich adhered to the following two ideologies of art mandated by the Russian government: 
  • art had to advance the political ideology of the state through education and/or enlightenment
  • art could not be seen as a potential challenge to party authority or political ideology. In sum, art that served the dominant political ideology was seen as good, whereas art that challenged it was suppressed. 
4. Ask students to write down adjectives that describe the political climate in which Shostakovich composed his music. Call on students to share their responses and record them on the whiteboard. 

5. Listen to Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 8. Instruct students to record adjectives that describe the emotions communicated by Shostakovich’s music. 

6. Ask students to create a Vinn Diagram that compares/contrasts Shostakovich’s music with the music of Russian composers that preceded him. Students should use musical vocabulary to identify and explain these similarities and differences. 

7. Ask students to share their observations and explanations of how specific elements in Shostakovich’s music violate the two ideologies of art mandated by the Russian government. 

8. As a culminating activity ask students to use their knowledge of musical vocabulary to explain how the music of Shostakovich and the Russian composers that preceded him were influenced by the political climate of Russia. 

Information for the HANDOUT (cut and paste into your document)

Biography of Dmitri Shostakovich Handout

Soviet composer Dmitri
Shostakovich was born in St.
Petersburg, Russia in 1906. A
musical prodigy of the mid-20th
century, Shostakovich studied piano
at the Petrograd Conservatory from
1919-1925. He earned early
international acclaim with his
graduation piece, Symphony No. 1.
Like many Soviet composers of his
time, Shostakovich had to write
under strict, government-imposed
standards of Soviet art. During this
period, two government ideologies
with regard to art prevailed: 1) art
had to advance the political
ideology of the state through education and/or enlightenment; and 2) art could
not be seen as a potential challenge to party authority or political ideology. In
sum, art that served the dominant political ideology was seen as good, whereas
art that challenged it was suppressed. Shostakovich’s first two operas, The Nose
(1930) and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934), based on pre-Soviet literature,
received popular and critical acclaim, although they were condemned by
publications from the Communist Party. After this condemnation Shostakovich
devoted himself primarily to symphonies, concertos and quartets. His Symphony
No. 5 (1937) and No. 6 (1939) were well received by both the Communist Party
and the public.
On the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany in 1941, Shostakovich and
his family were evacuated to Kuybishev (now Samara). In 1943 they settled in
Moscow where Shostakovich taught music composition at the Conservatory.
When he was condemned again in 1948 for formalism, most of Shostakovich’s
works were banned. Shostakovich was forced publicly to repent, and his family
had privileges withdrawn. As a result, he spent the next five years devoting
himself to film music to pay the rent and official works aimed at securing official
rehabilitation. The restrictions on Shostakovich’s music and living arrangements
were eased in 1949, in order to secure his participation in a delegation of Soviet
notables to visit the U.S. The rigid controls over artistic expression eased with the
death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. In 1960 Shostakovich joined the Communist
Party. The decision has been interpreted in various ways as either a mark of
commitment, an act of cowardice, or as having been forced. Later in life, Shostakovich suffered from chronic health illnesses, including a debilitating condition affecting his right hand, forcing him to give up playing thepiano. In 1965 Shostakovich was diagnosed with polio; he died of lung cancer in 1975. Nonetheless, Shostakovich’s legacy remains. Throughout his lifetime, he received many awards including the University of Oxford’s Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal and the Supreme Soviet honor, the Order of Lenin. Shostakovich’s works include two operas, 15 symphonies, two violin concertos, two cello concertos, two piano concertos, ballet music, songs and scores for motion pictures.