I haven’t worked out just how much of Shostakovich’s biography I want to lace in with my listener responses. I’ve been gravitating towards doing so sparingly, except where it bears on my understanding or interpretation of a piece. I don’t have anything to add that I didn’t read in a secondary source and, since I’m trying to write as extemporaneously as I can instead of composing a bunch of book reports, that mostly seems like an opportunity to get facts wrong. In the near future I’ll at least enumerate the books I’ve read.
Today, though, since I got to phone in my post about the lost Opus 9, it seems worth mentioning some detail about Shostakovich’s time at the Petrograd Conservatory that I haven’t worked into a post yet. First, his basically ordinary formal education (within which he produced, I think, all of the pieces I’ve listened to so far) was by no means guaranteed given the instability and economic difficulties in the years right after the October 1917 revolution. The first pages of Laurel Fay’s second chapter in Shostakovich: A Life credit the head of the conservatory, Alexander Glazunov, with maintaining normalcy and particularly seeing to the needs of the gifted but sickly young Shostakovich. Elizabeth Wilson, in her excellent Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, reproduces part a letter that Glazunov wrote to the relevant authority in order to obtain additional food rations for his student (“I humbly ask you not to refuse my request on his behalf to provide the means of feeding this most talented boy and building up his strength”). Besides being an artifact of the times it seems like an odd sort of torch-passing from the old guard — Glazunov was a prestigious composer in his own right — to the new. (For her part, Fay notes, but soft-pedals, the additional fact that Shostakovich’s father provided Glazunov with alcohol he procured illicitly from his Bureau of Weights and Measures job.)
Fay recounts a couple of other striking details. In Shostakovich’s first winter at the Conservatory, the classrooms were unheated and students (when they attended, although Shostakovich himself was one of the diligent ones) could only remove their gloves to do exercises; his counterpoint instructor would skip classes and Shostakovich would track him down at his home. Later in life, Shostakovich expressed fondness for those years because of his and his fellow students’ enthusiasm, which I find rather touching; I had a breezy childhood myself (and I wouldn’t have it any other way) but it’s interesting to me that young people are, in some ways, much more resistant to hardship than adults. It’s true also that, notwithstanding Opus 6, Shostakovich’s student music hadn’t yet developed the searing intimacy of his later work — his personal difficulties aren’t audible in these early exercises.
It’s also worth noting, off topic, that Shostakovich studied piano as well as composition at the Conservatory, and was a very promising concert pianist early in his career: This helps explain the higher percentage of piano works in his early output and the forwardness of the piano within his early orchestral works.