Life Chronicles

On 1 July 1925, Shostakovich finished composing the First Symphony.

Graduating from the Leningrad Conservatoire: Composition Class. Graduation Composition — First Symphony (op. 10).
Work as a pianist in cinemas.

November 29, 1925, Leningrad

“The performance of my Symphony will be my swan-song as a composer. After that I shall turn into a musical machine able to portray at the drop of a hat ‘happy meetings of two loving hearts’... It may well be that the Symphony will shake me up and I shall again be able to immerse myself into the ‘magic world of creation’?”

“For my graduation from the Conservatoire (Composition Class) in 1925 I submitted my First Symphony as my degree composition. I cannot remember now why, but for a short period after graduation from the Conservatoire I suddenly had terrible doubts about my vocation as a composer. I felt incapable of composing and during a bout of ‘disillusionment’ destroyed almost all my manuscripts. Now I regret it very much, because the opera ‘Gypsies’ to words by Pushkin was among the burnt manuscripts.
After leaving the Conservatoire I had a problem: should I be a pianist or a composer? The second choice won out. To tell the truth, I should have been both. Now though, it is too late to blame myself for taking such a drastic decision.”

May 1, 1925
S. Shostakovich (composer’s mother):

“Recently he’s torn by the search for his creative identity. He is undergoing mental torture...
About his move to Moscow. The first consideration for me is Mitya’s health and my responsibility for this life so precious to me. He has a very serious illness ... TB of the bronchilal and jugular lymphatic glands, which demands the strictest of medical regimes and constant care. Despite our poverty and constant privations, our Mitya is very spoilt thanks to the essential comfort which we all provide for him. He has to eat at specific times, have everything provided for him. Without a regime like this, he won’t survive.<...>
As far as work is concerned, I don’t think Mitya is strong enough to carry a load like that from the age of 18. He must now see to his health, get rid of his TB and devote as much of his energy as possible to his beloved art. The last thing I want to do though is to deprive him of his freedom. My most cherished dream is to arrange for him to see you at regular intervals and thus have the chance to learn from you and to keep in touch with his Moscow friends. <...>When it comes to his health, here I have to be on my guard, so as to keep him alive. You must agree that in this matter there is no one to sort things out apart from a mother who’s no use to anyone. So willy-nilly I have to struggle with all Mitya’s friends for whom, naturally enough, the question of his health and life is of no importance. Seeing, however, how much he wants to leave home, I shall let him go to Moscow, but not before this autumn. <...>
The root of the trouble, of course, is our poverty, total lack of money and the complete inability to assert ourselves in life. In this
there is probably no hope for a cure!”

April 5, 1925, Leningrad

“ local circles many people know that I want to move to Moscow to study with you. How they learnt that ... Heaven knows. I have just been riding on a tram from Vasiliev Island. While I was crossing the Neva and passing St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which looks stunning at night, I thought to myself that Moscow has none of this. There is a miserable little Moscow River and a wretched Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Oh, how I love Petersburg as a city. Moscow with its crooked and stuffy streets has a bad effect on me. After all that though, the main attraction of a city is neither Nevsky Avenue nor Tver Boulevard but the inhabitants. They are the reason why I’m going to Moscow.”

June 17, 1925, Leningrad

“I am working night and day on the score for my Symphony. I have got so carried with it, that I spend the whole day writing and by the evening I am so tired that can neither write nor read. All I can manage is to undress and go to bed. The ink is drying on my pages, as I write...”

July 2, 1925

“Since the death of my friend I have been in very low spirits. Whatever I am doing, whatever I am thinking, the thought is going round in my head: Volodya has gone and gone for always. I can’t shake off this thought for a moment and probably shall not be able to for a long time. His was a wonderful spirit and for that I loved him dearly.”

October 18, 1925

“At the moment I’m in a bad mood because of my work in the cinema. It is easier to cope with the work now, however, than it was last year. I don’t have to improvise so much. I play more with an orchestra. The pay is quite good: 134 roubles a month. Now they are showing a drama “The Great and the Eternal”. It has been on without a break for five weeks. There is a full house every day and each time round the music is the same. I am sick and tired of it. Can it really drag on for a sixth week? I have even started hearing it in my sleep. It’s very unpleasant. I’m incapable of composing anything. The other day I started work on Part 3, but I didn’t like it and stopped. Although it’s not up to me to judge what is good and what isn’t in my work, I am unable to go on composing something if I don’t like it. <...> I want to play, to compose but definitely not to select music for heart-rending screen dramas. Yet, I have to do this for my daily bread.”

“I think I shall soon turn my back on music. I feel that where I am trying to find friendship I come across either cool indifference or undisguised rejection. It can’t be helped. I am afraid of them all because of their sense of importance, their aloof inaccessibility. Now I shall tell you about myself. My mood is very low. This is why I have been silent for so long since receiving your letter. I didn’t want to moan. There is a lot of tedious work involved with correcting the score. I am afraid that I am doing this all in vain. I am never going to listen to this symphony. I am coughing a bit. At home things are miserable. All the others, apart from me, are quarrelling with each other, for some reason... I cannot do anything to help brighten their lives. My mother and my sisters are such good people, but they have very little to be cheerful about ... what tomorrow is going to bring and, essentially, nothing else. I can’t do anything to make them happier. I know that my happiness is their happiness, but I have none, just sorrow and doubts. I never allow myself, though, to worry them with my troubles. They have enough of their own. That is why at home I am jolly and energetic, play the comforter and when I can I make them laugh. Yet all the time my nerves are on edge. They are in a constant state of tension, but a couple of times I lost control. The day before yesterday, when walking down a corridor in the Conservatoire, I started to cry. I cried my heart out but it didn’t help. Yesterday, after a strict reprimand from the conductor of the cinema orchestra for an unsuccessful interlude, I started crying again. The conductor, a very nice man, thought that I had taken offence and he started to comfort me very warmly. At night I have such terrible dreams, that I wake up and can’t go back to sleep.”

November 3, 1925

“Yesterday about nine o’clock I went to this concert. I saw Malko walking along. I thought it would be a good idea to tell him now about the existence of my symphony. Then I got scared and decided to postpone the conversation for the time being. So we went our separate ways: I for diplomatic reasons and he simply didn’t notice me. Then I thought to myself ... You fool! ... and I called out to him. I went up to him and said: ‘I have a symphony. I should like to show it you.’ He: ’Fine. But why haven’t you asked me about it before? Yavorsky wrote to me about it.’ I: ’I don’t know what Yavorsky wrote to you, but now I am asking you myself.’ He: ’Bring the symphony along to the lesson tomorrow.’ Today I took the score along and at the end of the lesson I played it for him. He liked it and he said that it should be performed and he himself began to write out some of the parts. So things are moving. Now I want to thank you for having written to him about my symphony. That helped everything to go more smoothly and simply. What I find most difficult in life is to ask people to do me favours. I had only tried it once before. I had wanted to show my symphony to B. Asafiev. I told him about it. He said: ‘Give me a ring in the next few days’. I rang him five times, but every time he was ‘desperately busy’. In the end I never showed him the symphony. <...> Now I am terribly glad that I can write out the parts, knowing that it will not be in vain.”

November 29, 1925, Leningrad

“Now I am in a very sad mood because of my complete inability to compose. I have nothing to console myself with... if I have not managed to compose anything since the summer, it means that something must have happened which has deprived me of the ability to write for a time or perhaps even for good. <...> I feel that the cinema and my daily improvisations there are killing me. How horrible! I am sure that many of my musical friends will turn their backs on me after learning that I have stopped being a composer, or, if I have not actually stopped, have at least become a very bad one...
If I love somebody, but am treated badly by them, I myself stop loving too. The cinema is killing me, it’s a fact, although I’m not looking for sympathy. “You poor thing, such hopes were placed in you and now the cinema has reduced you to nothing.” If I am in some kind of trouble, I prefer comfort to sympathy. So I hope that Malko will conduct my symphony. The problem is that he is dragging feet so much. On Tuesday I am going to speak to him firmly. The performance of my symphony will be my swan song as a composer. Then I shall change into a musical machine able to produce at any given moment ‘meetings of two loving hearts’, ‘the despair of losing a loved one, and other rubbish’. Perhaps the symphony will shake me up and once again I shall immerse myself into the magical world of creativity?”

December 8, 1925, Leningrad

“Of all the conductors now in the USSR and whom I know, the best one, in my view, is Malko. So my cherished dream is coming true. The symphony is to be performed. Today I gave the score to the copier. In a month at the most the parts will be ready. After that a month will be spent by the conductor learning the parts and then comes the music!
<...> I am hoping to benefit a great deal from having given up my work in the cinema. Perhaps an idea will come into my head and I shall be able to compose something. In general yesterday evening and this morning were so joyous, that I was almost suffocating all day from happiness. Joy like disappointment always moves me deeply. I cannot do anything at such emotional times, and this morning I could hardly breathe for joy. A marvellous feeling. By the evening it began to fade, because I had to run around and as a result I just got tired...”