Pianist, Composer, Fan
Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the most influential figures in 20th-century music. He also loved football.
It is a Sunday in St Petersburg in early October. Clouds darken the sky above the Petrovsky Stadium, home of Zenit, ahead of a game against Spartak Moscow. The rivalry between the two largest cities in Russia is evident in the choreography designed by local supporters, whose long banner reads “Kulturalnaya stolica” [“Cultural capital”] – that is, in contrast to the political one. In the lower sectors of a stand, blue-and-white reproductions of the Petrovsky Stadium itself and of other local landmarks flap in the wind. The choreography is completed by a few more banners showing musical scores and a gargantuan portrait of the St Petersburg-born composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich. Above it, his son Maxim, grandson Maxim and grand-nephew Sergei sit in the main stand. Shostakovich is a clear example of the best of Russian and St Petersburg culture, but he also had a boundless passion for football, supporting Dinamo Moscow and Zenit Leningrad, nourishing the pride of local fans further. He defined football as the “ballet of the masses”.
Shostakovich was born in September 1906. His paternal grandfather Bolesław, a Polish revolutionary who spelled his surname Szostakowicz, had fought in the January Uprising of 1863-64 before being exiled to Siberia. His father, also called Dmitri, had studied at the university in St Petersburg before working as an engineer at the Bureau of Weights and Measures under the great chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, who created a version of the Periodic Table. The family remained hostile to the Tsarist autocracy.
St Petersburg was the location of the first football match on Russian soil, and also the cradle of revolution. The 1905 and 1917 Revolutions began there, but it was also culturally avant-garde. As the Soviet poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky theorised in his journal LEF, the Futurist movement, which had its home in St Petersburg, took culture to the streets and so gave literature to the proletariat: the cultural revolution served as a prelude to the political one. This was the environment in which Shostakovich grew up.
Shostakovich embraced the new wave in art, literature and music and graduated with full marks from the Conservatory in 1925 for his First Symphony. He adhered to the socialist and artistic ideals of post- revolutionary Russia, showing a natural inclination for the poor. As his Italian biographer Franco Pulcini put it, such a vocation eventually translated into a passion for football, which was gradually becoming a popular game despite the scepticism of the central government: the game had been invented in bourgeois England and often violated public order with brawls, and so was seen as potentially dangerous.
Football in Russia fumbled around with impromptu reforms and endless second thoughts until 1936, when the first nationwide league kicked off. By then, it was already the people’s game and had great social significance. Footballers were lionised and their deeds were surrounded by a halo of legend; the establishment began to realise the value the game could have as a means of propaganda. The Russian academic Dmitri Braginsky noted that football enjoyed an impressive reputation in the figurative arts and literature, inspiring poems by Osip Mandelstam and Nikolay Zabolotsky, paintings by Alexander Deyneka and Alexander Samokhvalov and the novel Envy by Yury Olesha. Sport was also at the centre of Mayakovsky’s play Championship of the World Class Struggle, an allegory of the clash between the socialist USSR and the capitalist West – a subject that eventually recurred in Shostakovich’s first football-dedicated symphony.
The composer himself, though, would feel disappointed by the work combining his greatest two passions. It began in early 1929, when the cinema director Aleksandr Ivanovsky won a competition held by the Leningrad Theatre Commission for contemporary ballet. “Dinamiada”, the winning libretto, is the story of a Soviet football team performing in the imaginary nation of Faschland in the capitalist, racist West. After arriving in the antagonistic country, the players are abused by corrupt officers and jailed on charges eventually proved to be false, but local workers decide to rise up against their overlords and free the team. The script ends with a collective dance of solidarity between them. As Braginsky observed, at that time the term ‘fascist’ did not merely refer to supporters of the Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini – it generically hallmarked ‘enemies’ of the Soviet state, both at home and abroad. For instance, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians went as far as to define as fascists the renowned composers Sergey Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky.
The libretto was inspired by a European tour undertaken in the 1920s by Dinamo Moscow, the sports club affiliated with the NKVD, the Soviet security and secret police apparatus. Similar to other politically engaged works in those years, the plot reached far beyond football – it centred on a conflict between political and social systems. “Another sports- focused libretto, ‘Futbolist’ by Vsevolod Kurdyumov, ranked second,” said the Italian professor Mario Alessandro Curletto, the co-author of several books about football in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia with the journalist Romano Lupi. “Football played a pivotal role, although the announcement generically referred to a contemporary subject and neither Ivanovsky nor Kurdyumov had previously had any relationship with sport. It’s really striking that, among all the modern elements that permeated Russian society at the time, it was football that enjoyed such a relevance even in ballet.”
In May 1929, Shostakovich was invited to compose the music for “Dinamiada”, which had been renamed “The Golden Age”. He did not like the staging or the libretto – he accepted the commission only at the insistence of the polymath Ivan Sollertinsky, the artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic who had promoted the competition and was one of Shostakovich’s closest friends.
“The basis of the music for the ballet includes two elements – the music of modern Western European bourgeois culture, and the music of the Soviet proletarian culture,” the composer himself explained. “The confrontation between the two cultures is my main objective in composing ‘The Golden Age’. This task is accomplished as follows: Western European dances are characterised by a morbid eroticism that is so characteristic of modern bourgeois culture. I filled Soviet dance with the elements of healthy physical activity and sports.”
“The Golden Age” premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in Leningrad on 26 October 1930 and amassed 19 encore performances throughout the season. There were also stagings in Odessa and Kyiv, setting a new record in the history of Soviet ballet. Shostakovich jotted down his thoughts in a letter to the director of the Leningrad State Theatres: “The show went fine. We authors all enjoyed a great success. Reviews have not come out yet, but this is not that important – it is important that the audience appreciated our efforts both yesterday and the day before yesterday.”
He still had several concerns, though, as he expressed to the theatre director Nikolay Smolich: while mentioning the “necessary harmony between music and action on stage”, he said that “this did not happen with ‘The Golden Age’ – the scenic action on its own, the music on its own. To my eyes, the show is a fiasco [...] I do know that, in terms of artistic content, ‘The Golden Age’ is an anti-artistic work – and you, Lyubinsky, Sollertinsky, Gorodinsky and many others are responsible for me writing an anti-artistic work. In my opinion, the music part is extraordinarily successful if compared to many others that I have done. Yet from now on I want to compose only subjects that really touch me. From my perspective, fiascos such as ‘The Golden Age’ are hard to swallow.”
Unfortunately for the composer, the critics shared the same opinion – at that time, their opinions essentially dovetailed with the official point of view of the government apparatus and Joseph Stalin himself. They savaged the presence in the work of undesirable Western genres such as the foxtrot and the Charleston as well as the music itself, which was described as “not suitable to be danced to”. As a consequence, “The Golden Age” disappeared from theatres for more than half a century, being performed again only in 1982 with a new libretto. Avant-garde movements from the immediate post-revolutionary years had been discarded in favour of Socialist realism and any expression of Russian formalism, which under Stalin became a pejorative term for elitist art, was strictly forbidden.
Football, which he loved so much, was associated with one of the first failures. in Shostakovich’s career. Still, it offered him “an escape, both from music and from the cares of daily life,” the American biographer Laurel Fay observed. The pianist began attending matches in the 1930s as a season-ticket holder alongside the literary critic and librettist Isaac Glikman, a very close friend, and above all Vladimir Lebedev. A painter and graphic artist who pioneered illustration for children’s books and refereed several boxing matches, Lebedev is believed to be the man who inspired Shostakovich’s passion for football. The composer had met Konstantin Yesenin, a great historian of Soviet football and son of the famous poet Sergei. They formed a narrow circle of friends who exchanged opinions and thoughts on tactics and even match reports in a substantial correspondence. Most importantly, those friends offered Shostakovich support and relief when he suffered his first denunciation.
In the mid-1930s, Shostakovich wrote both the libretto (with Alexander Preys) and the music for the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on the novel of the same name by Nikolai Leskov and dedicated to his wife Nina Varzar. It was, initially, a great success and his earnings from the opera allowed Shostakovich to attend away matches in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Tbilisi. But on 28 January 1936 the Communist Party’s newspaper Pravda reviewed a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow under the headline, Muddles instead of Music. Although the tirade was anonymous, legend has it that Stalin himself had drafted those lines – nowadays, the editorial is widely attributed to the literary critic David Zaslavsky. The review dismissed Lady Macbeth as a “deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds... [that] quacks, hoots, pants and gasps”. The opera was subsequently banned and would not be staged again until 1963, by which time it had been massively revised and renamed Katerina Izmailova.
Pravda attacked Shostakovich again that February for his light comic ballet The Limpid Stream because “it jangles and expresses nothing” and “did not give an accurate picture of peasant life on a collective farm”. He would then be publicly criticised a second time for formalism in the Zhdanov decree of 1948. Such persecution highlights Shostakovich’s difficult relationship with Stalin’s regime. “When it comes to evaluating his artistic path, critics have taken into account that he never wanted to leave the USSR, and some have even blamed him for this,” said Curletto, author of Shostakovich. Note sul calcio [Notes on football]. “We do not know whether he always remained in his homeland due to belief, advantage or fear. In contrast to other Russian intellectuals who have been glorified in the West, and despite having had the opportunity to travel abroad during the years of Stalin’s leadership, he always returned without seeking asylum as a political refugee. He never ceded to the enticing prospect of a golden exile, even though he would have been celebrated in the US as an ‘anti-Communist hero’ or ‘freedom fighter’.”
Both Shostakovich’s reputation and financial situation plummeted, demolished by a slanderous campaign against his music that traumatised him and almost prevented him composing music. According to his biographer Sofia Khentova, attending football matches in this troubled period constituted a diversion as well as an opportunity to socialise. “He fell in misfortune and had the awkward perception of being isolated,” Curletto said. “He no longer had friends or acquaintances in the music environment. On the other hand, the people who shared his love for football were different – they were likely to exchange ideas, opinions and statistics without considering him a potentially dangerous person.”
Shostakovich somehow completed the score for his Fourth Symphony in May and attended the historic match between Dynamo Leningrad and Lokomotiv Moscow, the opening game of the first Soviet national championship. But he could not help missing the Leningrad derby between Dynamo and Krasnaya Zarya, the first ever to take place in the top flight, five days after his daughter Galina was born. “Shostakovich was not like many intellectuals who have frequented football stadiums as a form of presenteeism – he really loved this game,” Curletto said. “He was enraptured by a ball rolling on the pitch, no matter whether it was grassroots or the professional leagues. He had a mania to be always up- to-date on football issues.” Shostakovich was even a qualified referee, although it is plausible that he was given a honoris causa certificate by the Sports Committee of the Communist Party, since there is no documentary evidence nor is his name listed in the archive of the College of Football Referees.
There is plenty of evidence, on the other hand of Shostakovich’s devotion to football. “One day, he stood in a massive downpour during a match, getting soaked like a chick while the other spectators were rushing towards the closest awning,” Curletto wrote. “He did not even realise it was raining, or at least he did not pay much attention to it.” In 1937, Shostakovich invited Glikman to a dacha he had rented in a village 140km south of Leningrad. “We travelled for almost four hours on a slow, crowded, suffocating train, then we got on a waggon that finally took us to our destination,” Glikman recalled. “The village was charming, but after a few days Dmitri Dmitriyevich suggested we should interrupt the holiday and go back to Leningrad for a football match expected to be spectacular. I objected to him with all my might, but I finally had to surrender. We arrived on time at the stadium after a violent storm and a long trip. It was one of the sharpest displays of his passion for football. Sometimes, he even made fun of such an excitement, but he had no intention of disavowing it.”
In the summer of 1964, Shostakovich went on a holiday to Hungary with other Soviet musicians. While having breakfast in a resort on Lake Balaton, he realised his pocket radio couldn’t pick up any transmission from Leningrad, where Zenit were playing that day. “He was very nervous,” the composer Vladlen Chistyakov said. Then, someone realised that radio signals could be received on the water rather than the shore. Shostakovich rented a boat and, via an interpreter, got the captain to take him to the middle of the lake so he could listen to commentary. “Dmitri Dmitriyevich calmed down only when he learnt the final score,” Chistyakov wrote. He also told Braginsky that he and Shostakovich attended a game between Ferencváros and Vasas in Budapest, and the great composer expressed regret that he could not watch Ferenc Puskás, who had defected eight years earlier.
Shostakovich became friends with several players from his favourite teams, hosting parties for them in his Leningrad apartment. According to Lebedev, the composer wanted to understand his heroes and to observe them in everyday life off the field. The Dinamo captain Valentin Fyodorov spoke to Shostakovich regularly, passing on information about injuries and the latest news from training. Shostakovich reciprocated by procuring him a couple of the tickets for the premiere of his Fifth Symphony. “He is an exquisite person at the highest degree and one of the best left-halves in the Soviet Union,” Shostakovich said of Fyodorov.
Pyotr ‘Peka’ Dementyev was another Dinamo legend loved by Shostakovich. “He was a great football fan,” the diminutive forward wrote in his memoirs. “In Leningrad, he never missed any match I played and he attended them in other cities whenever he had the opportunity.” Dementyev was nicknamed ‘ballerina’ by the composer himself because of his grace on the pitch. “In 1944,” he went on, “we played in Ivanovo in the Soviet Cup quarter-finals and Shostakovich showed up in our dressing room at half-time. He said he was passing through Ivanovo and, when he learnt that I would play, he came to the stadium. There was not even a bench for him and we sat on the floor. ‘Lads, aren’t you going to catch a cold?’ he asked in concern. Then, he came to me. ‘You know, when I left Leningrad I didn’t know which team to support,’ he said with a gracious, sincere tone. ‘I dreamt of seeing you playing again at the end of the war and you’ve lived up to my expectations.’”
War, indeed. Shostakovich was heading to the Petrovsky Stadium with Glikman on 22 June 1941 when he heard from the loudspeakers along the streets the Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov announcing the German invasion. He was evacuated with his family to Moscow and eventually to Kuybyshev – now Samara – in late October. He spent almost two years by the Volga, carrying on composing music and writing letters. His correspondence lays bare his nostalgia for his birthplace and, above all, his passion for football. He attended several city league matches, reporting on them in letters and postcards delivered to the engineer and former footballer Valentin Cogan, who for his part kept Shostakovich informed on football news from Moscow. Meanwhile, the Soviet Supreme League was suspended, with footballers themselves fighting on the frontline. It was in Kuybyshev that Shostakovich completed the famous Seventh Symphony, a heartbreaking hymn to the besieged Leningrad and its resistance against the Axis powers. The symphony premiered in his home town on 9 August 1942 under dire circumstances, with the surviving musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra playing alongside military performers. Only a few weeks earlier, Dinamo Leningrad had played three friendlies against teams representing the Baltic Fleet and the local metallurgical factory Nevsky Zavod. Soviet propaganda used their example to warn the German army that the city was still alive and that its inhabitants would not be defeated.
In September 1942, Shostakovich wrote a match report of a friendly played in the capital between Dinamo Moscow and Dinamo Leningrad for the leading newspaper Krasnyi Sport. It is available in the State Archive and is notable for the fact that the composer used the byline “Winner of the Stalin Prize”. The article is imbued with rhetoric and patriotism, as the visiting team is greeted as “the citizens of the heroic city, the glorious defenders of our beautiful Leningrad”. “The match was, of course, organised by the NKVD,” Braginsky wrote in his essay “Shostakovich and Sport”. “During World War II, each of the Dinamo teams in all the large cities of the Soviet Union – Moscow, Leningrad, Kyiv, Minsk, Tbilisi and Alma-Ata – could only function under the patronage of the NKVD, and all the players of the Dinamo teams were under the personal protection of Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the NKVD.” In contrast to his predecessors, Beria was an ardent football fan. “Clearly, a high-profile match between two Dinamo teams was likely to gain Beria prestige within the regime, and to enlist Shostakovich – a national and international icon at the time – as a football reporter would have given the game even greater profile and cachet,” Braginsky went on.
In 1944, seven months after the siege of Leningrad had been lifted, the Dinamo Stadium in Moscow hosted the Soviet Cup final, the first tournament to be played in the USSR since the outbreak of war. Zenit faced CDKA Moscow, the army club, and Shostakovich travelled from Ivanovo, where he was spending the summer, to support his beloved Zenit. He even telephoned the hotel where the players were staying to encourage them. CDKA took the lead in the first half, but Zenit equalised and then added a second to become the first side from outside the capital to lift the cup.
Shostakovich returned to Ivanovo and, in just 19 days, composed his String Quartet No 2. According to Khentova, for Shostakovich’s euphoria at Zenit’s win was entwined with artistic creativity. The same year, the composer wrote the scene “Football” for the spectacle Russkaya reka [Russian river], performed in Moscow by the Song and Dance Company of the Dzerzhinsky Club. Oddly, this cheerful, serene music is part of a show oozing seriousness and a great patriotic pathos, offering a reflection of the zeitgeist.
As Braginsky noted: “There is one political organisation that linked Shostakovich’s football articles to sport-inspired compositions such as the ballet ‘The Golden Age’ and the scene ‘Football’ – the NKVD.” Dinamo Moscow and the Dzerzhinsky Club company all belonged to the secret police, “hence both Shostakovich’s football articles and compositions emerged from a decidedly political context.” Braginsky, who published the book Shostakovich and Football: Escape to Freedom on the occasion of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, also reveals that “the ‘Football’ scene was written at the behest of Beria himself and, according to official reports, Shostakovich expressed childlike enthusiasm at the prospect of writing more ‘football music’. The NKVD – and the Communist authorities in general – knew about his passion for football and used it in conjunction with his great prestige and popularity as a part of its propaganda war.”
Once the Nazis were defeated, Shostakovich could go back to Leningrad and moved permanently to Moscow, where he resumed his old habit of attending games – he regularly went to the Dinamo Stadium with the musician Matvey Blanter, who had previously composed the “Football March” that still accompanies teams entering and leaving the field in league matches.
After the war, Shostakovich’s obsession grew. The renowned violinist David Oistrakh returned from a tour of Romania with a leather-bound diary inscribed in gold with his name. It became the first in a long series of notebooks in which Shostakovich collected statistics and chronicled teams, surnames of players, schedules and match results. For 30 years, until his death in 1975, he kept meticulous records.
In an interview with national newspaper Izvestia given in January 1966, Shostakovich expressed a desire to follow the USSR national team to the World Cup in England. “Unfortunately, our players have often given more reasons for disappointment than for joy,” he told the journalist. “But I remain a patriotic supporter of our team and always root for our team. I believe in our players, otherwise I would not go to London...” When asked about the Soviets’ chances in the tournament, he replied: “As is well known, there are no weak teams. Our team must play with maximum effort. The fact that the USSR national team, when losing 2-0 to the Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro, managed to get it back to a draw, showed its great potential.”
A heart attack after a concert in Leningrad in late May prevented him from fulfilling his dream. He was hospitalised until 5 August, well after the final, and had to settle for watching football on TV. His health had begun to deteriorate in the late 1950s, when he was diagnosed with poliomyelitis – he had suffered from such serious problems in his right hand that playing the piano and composing music had become an arduous task.
Shostakovich gradually gave up going to matches, but football was still one of the most common themes in his letters. In 1971, shortly before the season kicked off, he wrote to the sports reporter Arkady Klyachkin. “I support Zenit by inertia, although this loyalty sometimes gives me more disappointments than joy. If you don’t mind, could you please tell me who are the new players who have signed for Zenit?” Klyachkin eventually visited him in his apartment in Moscow three years later. Together, they recalled Dinamo and Zenit players from the 1930s such as Mulia Kozinec, who, as the composer put it, was the first one in the Soviet Union to defend by tackling.
The great pianist kept on working, even though he was in poor health. In the summer of 1975, he remained in hospital from 9 July to 1 August. On 4 August, he wrote in his notebooks for the last time, as the symptoms of an apparent heart attack forced him into intensive care. Four days later, the doctors let him get up and Shostakovich decided to watch football on TV. He died the following day, six years before elements of his Fifth and Seventh Symphonies were used in the score for Escape to Victory.
Shostakovich died after saying that he could have never spent a single day without writing a line of music. And, you suspect, without thinking about football.