Shostakovich and Football Another Way of Expressing the Soviet Tragedy

shostakovich34 January 1942 Kuybishev

Dear Isaak,

I am writing to you a lot these days, as much in fact as my supply of envelopes will allow – this particular product of the papermaking industry is extraordinarily hard to come by. The same is true of postcards.

Our life here carries on without too many problems, in peace and quiet.  Sometimes at nights I don’t sleep, and I weep.  The tears flow thick and fast, and bitter. Nina and the children are asleep in the other room, so there is nothing to prevent me from giving way to my tears. Then I calm myself. My nerves are really playing up.

Judging by your last letter there are no football matches in Tashkent.  I went to an ice-hockey match here one day, but didn’t enjoy it much. They weren’t bad players, but the teams had no strips and the only way the players were able to overcome this minor handicap was by knowing one another personally.  Most of the time I had no idea which side a player was on, and the referee didn’t help to make things much clearer either. You could tell who he was though, because he had a fur coat and felt boots, but no skates.

I press your hand my dear friend,


When Shostakovich wrote this letter to Isaak Glikman, who was a colleague of his  from the Leningrad Conservatory, he had been living, with his family, as an evacuee in the Volga city of Kyubishev for the past four months. The German army had been advancing on Leningrad throughout August 1941 and by the end of the month most of the city’s main artistic and intellectual institutions had been transferred east, out of harm’s way. Glikman, a thirty-year-old theatre historian and director, was moved to Tashkent. Another friend and colleague, Ivan Sollertinsky, departed for Novosibirsk. Shostakovich, ardent in his desire to help morale in besieged Leningrad, refused to leave. But then he was ordered out, and there was relief all round when he complied with that Party order on October 1.

The Shostakoviches were safe in Kyubishev – a city which today has reverted to its pre-revolutionary name of Samara –  even if there was no football to divert to the famous composer the way he was used to being diverted in Leningrad. Being safe didn’t mean life was easy. Wartime conditions, coupled with the endemic inefficiency of the Soviet economy, meant many shortages of greater importance than envelopes and postcards. Paraffin for lamps and stoves was one Shostakovich would pick out. And who knows what he did for music paper. As a Russian, he was good at dealing with moderate to severe discomfort and laughing it off.

As the news from Leningrad grew ever more horrendous, however, we can be in no doubt that Dmitry Dmitrievich, who had volunteered for the army immediately after the Germans declared war, suffered deeply for what one might call the moral fate of Russia. The war was not the only cause of those tears he shed nightly in Kyubishev. Was the Nazi invasion of Russia worse than the era of Stalin’s Terror, which it immediately followed, and when, from the early 1930s, millions of alleged political conspirators, the vast majority of them innocent citizens, were either shot immediately or sent to the Gulag to die more slowly? Undoubtedly these incomparable but contiguous events both scarred the composer’s soul. At the best of times highly-strung, he had been fearful for himself during Stalin’s Purges and cowered under the hostile political criticism of his work that went with the tyrannical times. Now, against the German threat, he sprang instantly to his country’s defence. How he dealt with the complex of emotions Russia and his Russian life inspired in him has always seemed to me the clue to Shostakovich’s music. It is music that has to be heard in its historical context, however differently one might feel about Western music of the same, or any, age. And it is music that requires understanding of both the passionate elements that came to the fore in the letter of 4 January 1942 to Glikman: the tears and the football. Yes, that’s not a misprint. It was football as well as tears for a besieged city that had fed the great 7th symphony, about to receive its premiere.

Spartak team1936, Soviet First League

Spartak team1936, Soviet First League

It easy to grasp these days what Shostakovich felt about the Nazi invasion. The horror of it is a moral given of our time. Less easy is to understand what the reality of the Soviet system was like and why he despised it. As first-hand knowledge of Soviet Russia – the country that effectively began in 1917 and ended in 1991 –  recedes, and as the expressive content of Shostakovich’s music – because it is music – remains enigmatic, how can we latter-day listeners have any idea of what was at stake in Russia during that period, which embraced – or perhaps I should say swallowed up all but the first 12 years of the composer’s life – and plummed the depths of imhumanity in the 1930s and 40s? Perhaps it sounds glib to say we can read the correspondence Shostakovich had with Glikman, which was prompted by the evacuation of the two friends to different cities, and continued intermittently over the next 31 years. But I’m serious. This exchange of letters – although only Shostakovich’s have survived – strikes me as the closest the composer ever came to formulating the sometimes baffling switch of moods of his music, in his own words.

We know from many sources that, despite being a musical genius, Shostakovich was modest to the point of bashfulness; and that, as a man, he was a habitual joker who often sustained his private jokes by seeming deeply serious and apologetic to those around him. We know that he wept and laughed, mourned the horrors of life and celebrated its joys, in quick, depressive succession. He had a Russian fondness for drinking hard and raising the roof. For a man whose nature and metier made him profound, he had a real talent and appetite for superficiality. Almost his entire oeuvre poses the question of which mood of his we should take most seriously, and whether seriousness was the unequivocal message. By seriousness I mean the kind of heroic and triumphant humanism which his one-time Soviet masters liked to assume was a proclamation of their own merits. We can be sure that Shostakovich felt the greatness and the plight of Russia profoundly, but, as a result, – let’s be clear – what he had to say was not simple.

The problem of what Shostakovich was trying to express – and the suspicion that his vision was by far not straightforwardly elevating and humanistic – came to the fore often enough in his lifetime. Clearly audible in his music were negative emotions and elements of parody which couldn’t be tolerated by a state that cultivated a maximally optimistic image of itself in the eyes of its people. The premiere of the Sixth Symphony, in autumn 1939, was such an occasion. It raised so many doubts in Soviet — and also Western — musical circles as to what it was really ‘about’, and indeed, whether it was even musically acceptable, that even today it positively demands our deeper understanding of what Shostakovich’s life experience was. The correspondence with Glikman has, in my view, many of the elements necessary to that understanding, and one of them is the football I mentioned just now. In the rest of this talk I’m going to talk not the tragedy of the Soviet Union, not about the tragedy of the human condition, but about Shostakovich’s love of football. And I hope you will see that here is a perfect illustration of what Shostakovich’s music is so often about.

14 February 1942 Kuybishev

Dear Isaak,

I hardly need to tell you how excited I was by our telephone conversation.  As you must have observed (after all we have known one another for a long time) I am not much of a talker, especially on the telephone.  So far as I remember, the longest telephone conversation you and I ever had was on 19 June, after the Leningrad – Moscow match, the one which was decided by a single goal scored by the Leningrad right-winger in the final minutes of the first half.  You weren’t there, so in my best colourful and descriptive language I relayed the entire course of the game to you on the telephone….

Yesterday’s was the second longest conversation we have had.

Dear Isaak, I kiss you warmly,


Shostakovich, the greatest composer the Soviet workers’ state ever produced, was football-mad in the 1930s, when he was in his late twenties and early thirties. He admired and followed many sports and games, including boxing and tennis, ice hockey and chess, but soccer was his game of games ‘He was a rabid fan. He comported himself like a little boy; leapt up, screamed, gesticulated,’ one contemporary remembered.[1] The Shostakovich family still has the notebook in which Dmitry Dmitrievich kept a record of all the scores in the championship league over several years, together with, between the same covers, a list of his works by opus number and an attempt to catalogue the scores in his library. That football and music were inextricably mixed shows up in any examination of his personal life.

The children of  his close friend and colleague Ivan Sollertinsky would for instance recall how, before the war, when Shostakovich was teaching composition at the Leningrad Conservervatory, he would sometimes end his lessons early and just disappear. It turned out that on certain days in spring and autumn two Leningrad teams, Dynamo, and later Zenit, had the greater call on his time than his pupils. He would buy himself a season ticket and turn up for matches in all weathers. In summer, when family life threatened to intervene, he would leave his dacha in the countryside on foot, or hitch a ride in a cart, to catch the train into town and see the match. The beautiful game was a fix, something he needed to stay alive.

There’s a story about his friendship with a Leningrad sports journalist Arkady Klyachkin. Klyachkin could always get the tickets, because of his job, and Shostakovich was a knowledgeable and committed companion, ideal for enhancing the occasion. The two football fanatics used to bet between themselves on the outcome of matches. If Klyachin was right Shostakovich would take his friend out for a meal to celebrate, and one vodka would follow another. But whenever it was Klyachkin’s turn to buy the meal, the modest composer would claim the score – and I mean the match score – made him too miserable to eat, thus saving his dear friend the expense. Shostakovich knew many players personally and once had the whole Dynamo team to dinner at his house. Just before the war when a shortage of referees was announced he and Klyachkin signed up for a training course. Maxim Shostakovich affirmed that his father knew all the rules of the game, and though it’s not clear that the refereeing courses actually went ahead, it’s clear he would have made the grade. On one occasion when a reporter, possibly Klyachkin, failed to meet the deadline for his story on an important match, the premier Soviet football magazine phoned Shostakovich up in the middle of the night and begged his help. He recalled the game in lovingly minute detail, complete with the names of the reserve players who had gone on in the closing minutes, and saved the honour of the national sports press.

Soviet top league football 1947

Soviet top league football 1947

Amongst all the anecdotes and memories, however, it is Glikman, in his introduction to the composer’s letters to him, who begins to capture the mystery of  Shostakovich’s love of football:

I at his earnest insistence became his constant companion on the stands.  He watched in silence, betraying his emotions only by the expressions that now and again flitted across his face.  In those days, the actual process of play was very important, characterised by elegant and intricate movements and a special kind of football choreography. Not for nothing was one of the stars known as “The Ballerina”

Shostakovich disliked bad temper, aggressive or foul play on the pitch.  He loved it best when the game was open, honourable and chivalrous.  He found intensely moving the selfless absorption and even ecstasy with which the great players strove to achieve the apparently impossible task of putting the ball between the posts. What attracted Shostakovich to football, I believe, was an idealised vision of the game. Even he would joke about his weakness for the game, but he could tell that he had no intention of ever doing anything about it.

Soviet football fans. Shostakovich is bottom right

Soviet football fans. Shostakovich is bottom right

The idealised vision of the game was definitely the clue to the composer’s passion. You might think that as an artist in a workers’ state, he admired soccer as ‘the people’s game’. But it was what really played itself out on the pitch that hooked him. Football was a system in itself, with its own identities and loyalties, and its own moments of heroism and lyricism, and of disappointment and despair. As the writer Nick Horby has put it in our own time: ‘The Championship becomes something you either believe in or you don’t, like God.’ The crowd plunges masses of people into ‘the communal ecstasy of football’.  Shostakovich may have felt the beauty of the game all the more keenly as a non-player: the only time he ventured onto the pitch at school he had his glasses broken by the ball; and he surely enjoyed, as a relaxation, losing himself in the crowd. But some of his intensity also came from seeing in football both a kind of alternative ‘system’ of life that the Soviet authorities could never get at. At the same time the communal ecstasy of the crowd duplicated but seemed more genuine that the crowd emotions whipped up by Soviet authorities on festive occasions like May Day. But how does the football dimension to Shostakovich’s life help us understand his music? My feeling is it’s part of the content of the music, where you can find both crowd emotion and successions of highly incongruous feelings, almost as if the composer were satirising his own alternation between tragedy and football.

In this respect the excellent, if often disingenuous, Glikman recorded the reception of the 6th Symphony in exceptionally interesting terms:

Shostakovich was not able to attend the Moscow premiere of the Sixth Symphony personally.  He asked me to go to Moscow to hear the rehearsals and keep an eye on the general course of events, and to write to him with my impressions. This I did each evening.  One view was that the arrogant young composer had deliberately flouted tradition by writing a three-movement piece devoid of any discernible form.  Others were spitefully putting it about that Shostakovich must have walled himself up in an ivory tower where he was oblivious to all that was going on around him and in consequence had written a Largo that from start to finish would put the listener to sleep as surely as if he had taken a dose of deadly nightshade. Others, smiling indulgently, said the Finale was just a musical representation of a football match, with fortunes swinging from one side to the other.

It would be intriguing to know who exactly suggested the musical representation of a football match to understand ‘the manifestly vulgar Presto’, as the critic Ian MacDonald has put it. At least in football the swinging back and forth of each teams’s fortune makes sense. But in life? With Russia one moment Hitler’s ally, and the next moment his victim? With Soviet Russia proclaimed by Lenin the great hope of twentieth-century humanity, only for it to evolve into the home of the Gulag?


Young Shostakovich (1906-1975) with score at the piano

Young Shostakovich (1906-1975) with score at the piano

Russian critics of the day, and Shostakovich’s musical contemporaries, were genuinely puzzled by the 6th Symphony, following on, as it did, from the great and tragic 5th . Some said negatively that it was just a second edition of its predecessor. Others pointed out the subtle links between the 5th and the slow first movement of the 6th,  but then ran into difficulty with the lively scherzo and the galloping finale, because they seemed to be out of a different world. As they put it, the rest of this short, odd, three movement work had no organic connection with the first movement’s dominant mood and idea. Twenty years later a perceptive Soviet biographer defended the mismatch as deliberate. He perceived in the finale a composer who was being ‘slightly ironic in respect of his own boyish exuberance’, first depicting children romping in an insouciant world and then their ‘parents, full of their own importance and dignity’. The coda was built out of the same materials, which couldn’t at the time be named as hope and disillusion, innocence and the agony of experience, the beauty of true human aspiration and the pompous fatuity of the Soviet compromise. But today one can read between the lines that clearly that was meant. The critic saw Shostakovich evoking a town square in holiday mood, with a crowd and perhaps a fairground, with conjurors and acrobats…It was a creation of ‘brazen vulgarity’, attributable to ‘a paradox of the composer’s imagination.’ The composer was indulging in ‘a distant and paradoxical mental flight’.[2] Shostakovich’s creation was a paradox because Soviet reality couldn’t officially accept that a man could be driven to despair by what it had to offer mankind.

The nature of the 6th symphony seems clearer today, when critics everywhere are ideologically free to accept what was going on in Shostakovich’s head – and heart. The conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has said that he always sees the slow movement as depicting the plight of the individual in Soviet society, while his fellow conductor and countryman Yuri Temirkanov describes the finale of the 6th as ‘an incredibly tragic piece of music’….’First of all you sense there’s a crowd, and when it’s a crowd that size, it’s always frightening. Imagine being in Red Square and the people are made to “express joy”, it’s like a sort of drug, they’re all officially having fun, they’re persuading themselves that they’re enjoying themselves – and the artist is looking out of the window, completely horrified. That’s the finale to the 6th symphony.’

Of course the music is bigger than any one attempt to pin down its narrative content, whether it be a crowd at a fairground, a rentacrowd on Red Square in the old Soviet days, or the crowd at an occasion of the very real ‘communal ecstasy’ of football. Individuals looking on tend to be horrified by simplified and crude crowd behaviour. But I’m not sure Shostakovich was saying exactly that.

One needs more of the stuff of the letters to Glikman really to understand the fine line he trod between the superficial and the profound, the vulgar and the refined, the comic and the tragic. I will take just two. The first is dated 2nd January 1945:

Dear Isaak Davidovich,

…I am not composing at all at the moment, because the circumstances in which I am living are too awful. From six in the morning until six in the evening I am deprived of two essentials: water and light. It is particularly difficult between 3 o’clock and 6 o’clock in the afternoon, because it is already dark by then, the kerosene lamps hardly give any light, and my eyesight is not good enough for me to write by them. The lack of light brings on a state of nervous exhaustion, but there seems little hope of any improvement. I say this because I recently put my name to a petition to the local branch of the Industry Ministry humbly requesting that laureates of the Stalin Prize, People’s Artists, Honoured Artists, etc. – in a word the country’s leading composers – should receive an issue of kerosene, lamps, primus stoves, etc., on the grounds that interruption in the supply of electrical energy might be deemed to have a deleterious effect on their creative productivity. This letter was crowned with brilliant success, because on 31st December I received coupons entitling me to six litres of kerosene. I have a car but can’t use it; there is no petrol for it. I don’t have a driver either, because I can’t afford to pay one. So the car just sits in the Music Fund’s filthy garage, and good luck to it.

Life is not much fun, generally speaking. The lights come on at 6 o’clock, though by the time that joyful moment comes around my nerves are strung up to such a pitch that I am absolutely incapable of pulling myself together. I go to bed about midnight, but I sleep badly and wake up while it is still dark. I get up and wash, then I read Blok. I find him a great and wise poet, and some of his poems move me to the core of my being.

If you have time and inclination, please write to me…

The mood of this letter is more the absurdity than the tragedy of Soviet life. On the other hand the tragedy is evident in Shostakovich himself: the shredded nerves, the frustration with circumstances that stop him composing, his plight living in a tightly regulated society run by buffoons, and worse. And so he retreats at night into the work of a great poet, Alexander Blok who himself died tragically, of medical neglect, during the Civil War that secured Communist rule for Russia.

I don’t want to discount tragedy, but it seems to me we understand it – and its place in Shostakovich’s music – only too well. What is less familiar is what he himself, in another letter to Glikman, describes as pseudo-tragedy. The subject of the letter, dated 19 July 1960, is the Eighth String Quartet:

It’s quite a nice little hodge-podge really. It’s a pseudo-tragic quartet, so much so that while I was composing it I shed the same amount of tears as I would have had to pee after half-a-dozen beers. When I got home, I tried a few times to play it through, but always ended up in tears. This was of course a response not to the pseudo-tragedy as to my own wonder at its superlative unity of form. But here you may detect a touch of self-glorification, which no doubt will soon pass and leave in its place the usual self-critical hangover. The quartet is now with the copyists…

So that’s my news…My best wishes to you


‘I shed the same amount of tears as I would have to pee after half-a-dozen beers’: there you have it. There are others which add to the picture, but doesn’t this letter say it all? It expresses as it were the brazen vulgarity and the utter tragedy of this great life in Soviet music. And it was written by a composer for whom beer and football were, apart from music, among the few genuine pleasures and necessary escapes from the criminal, vulgarity of Soviet life.

Isaak Glikman and Dmitri Shostakovich at a Dacha in Komarovo outside Leningrad , c . 1953 . Russian composer , 25 September 1906 9 August 1975 .

Isaak Glikman and Dmitri Shostakovich at a Dacha in Komarovo outside Leningrad , c . 1953 . Russian composer , 25 September 1906 9 August 1975 .

There is by the way a magnificent video of Shostakovich at the piano c 1940:

[1] Laurel E. Fey Shostakovich A Life 2000 p.110

[2] David Rabinovich Dmitry Shostakovich, Composer 1959

And finally, for all that words can’t say:

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