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Shostakovich and football: how the beautiful game shaped the composer’s life and music

Shostakovich’s love of football gave the Soviet composer an escape from day-to-day life and, says Erik Levi, it even had an impact on his music

Shostakovich and football: how the beautiful game shaped the composer's life and music

What football team did Shostakovich support?

Shostakovich and football may seem unlikely bedfellows. But the great composer happened to be a passionate and obsessive fanatic of the beautiful game, as well as a lifelong supporter of his local team, FC Zenit. Indeed, so devoted was he to Zenit that the club – called Zenit St Petersburg today – decided to pay tribute to their most illustrious fan by putting on a spectacular celebration timed to coincide with the 110th anniversary of his birth. It took place at the Petrovsky Stadium in St Petersburg on 2 October 2016, just before a match between Zenit and their bitter rivals, Spartak Moscow. As an astonishing visual and music display, the event featured a huge portrait of the composer draped along the stands and was accompanied by a live performance of musical quotations from his Leningrad Symphony. It may well have inspired Zenit to produce their best football and to win the match 4-2.     

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Just how obsessed was Shostakovich with football?

This remarkable incident is described in vivid detail in the final chapter of Shostakovich and football: escape to freedom, a fascinating book by Dmitry Braginsky, who teaches at the St Petersburg Conservatory. Braginsky got the idea of exploring the composer’s fascination for the game some 15 years ago. ‘I had just read the recently published correspondence between Shostakovich and his close friend, the theatre critic and historian Isaak Glikman,’ he says. ‘It was amazing to discover how frequently the composer referred to football in these letters. Although many of the composer’s biographers had mentioned that Shostakovich enjoyed attending football matches, what really emerged from these letters was that he was so knowledgeable and passionate about the game.’

Shostakovich and his love of football

Thanks to the support and encouragement of the composer’s widow Irina, Braginsky gained access to the Shostakovich Family Archive in Moscow where he uncovered a wealth of previously unknown material that confirms the extent of the composer’s football obsession. Among the most notable discoveries was a letter that Shostakovich had written to Peter Dementyev, one of his favourite Leningrad players – a document that demonstrates the composer’s keenness to maintain active contact with a circle of professional sportsmen. It also explains his extraordinary decision to invite the entire Leningrad Zenit team to lunch at his flat, an occasion memorably recalled in the early pages of the Glikman correspondence. 

Also discovered in the Shostakovich archive were two newspaper reports on football matches from the 1940s which had been written by Shostakovich himself. One, which carried the headline ‘Leningrad Football Players in Moscow’ was published in 1942 in the Soviet national sports paper Krasny sport, a month after the historic premiere of the composer’s Leningrad Symphony. In welcoming a group of football players from Leningrad to Moscow at a time when the city was under siege from the Germans, Shostakovich was prompted to pepper his report with many morale-boosting remarks, suggesting for example that ‘by greeting the football team, we are greeting not only football players, but also the defenders of our city Leningrad’.

Another clipping confirms that even at an advanced age, Shostakovich never relinquished his love of football. In an interview published in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia in the mid-1960s, Shostakovich declared how much he was looking forward to joining a delegation of Soviet composers to visit London and cheer on the USSR national team at the World Cup in 1966. Unfortunately, the plan had to be abandoned in the light of his heart attack during that year – that the Soviet Union made it to the semi-finals can only have increased his disappointment.

Apart from letters and newspaper articles, another significant find was a large embossed diary, which Shostakovich referred to as his Grossbuch (large book). Its pages contain a listing of football results, USSR league table positions and analysis of individual team scores. A quick glance at Shostakovich’s handiwork will tell you, for instance, that Zenit finished the 1938 season in a lowly 22nd place, amassing just 17 points and losing 0-1 to Spartak along the way.    

Why did Shostakovich love football so much?

There are several possible explanations for Shostakovich’s football mania. His immediate family suggest that his intense love for the game served as a mode of escape from the day-to-day tribulations of his position as the most prominent of Soviet composers. Irina Shostakovich claims that her husband ‘lived in football as though in a special parallel dimension. It was an incredibly important part of his personal life from which he gained immense strength. In this terrain, he was forever young, happy and free.’ The composer’s son Maxim argues that by switching his attention to football, his father was able to overcome some of the traumas that had beset his career following the post-war Stalinist denunciations of his work: ‘In difficult years, football became a great source of comfort for him. It was football that helped him live through the persecution at the end of the 1940s when certain forces tried to destroy him. Football helped him to calm down, cope with stress and regain his equilibrium.’ 

Braginsky suggests that Shostakovich was initially attracted to football because he was intrinsically a gambling man. He cites as evidence that in his youth the composer spent a lot of time at the poker table, even on one occasion gambling away his favourite grand piano. ‘Shostakovich often said: “Never mind if you lost, the important thing is you still felt a rush of adrenalin”,’ says Braginsky. ‘Most probably his football passion was an integral part of his gambling habit. And Shostakovich could not live without football. He knew the game like an expert, like a refined appraiser, like a gourmet. During his football experience, he truly felt the same “rush of adrenalin”.’

Another plausible explanation for the importance Shostakovich attached to football relates to the political and cultural significance of the game in the Soviet Union. During the 1920s, the Bolsheviks recognised the immense propaganda potential of football, not least its popularity and appeal among the working classes, as well as the sense that team building, which involved the collective efforts of all members of a football club, could serve for the greater good by promoting a healthy and athletic lifestyle. This approach was not a million miles away from the way football was promoted by Nazi propaganda, but it also served to demonstrate to the world that the Soviet system was upright, egalitarian and fair. Indeed, many of Shostakovich’s Russian contemporaries, working in various different art forms, from theatre and film, to painting and sculpture,
were equally enamoured by football. They responded with outputs featuring rhythms and imagery that communicated the immediacy, physical excitement and modernity of the football experience.

How much did football influence Shostakovich’s music?

Shostakovich, who didn’t play football himself but was a qualified referee, seized the challenge of combining music and the sport in at least two scores. The first was his large-scale ballet The Golden Age, which was staged at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1930. The ballet only survived 20 performances before being banned by the authorities at a time when a reaction had set in against modernist experiments on the stage. The ballet scenario concerns the exploits of a Soviet football team that is invited to visit a decadent fascist Western European city and depicts the difficulties they experience on their travels, from hostile officials, seductive divas and corrupt police officers.

Shostakovich’s score attempts to contrast what he initially described as morbid and decadent Western bourgeois dance music with an idiom more closely associated with an upright proletarian Soviet culture. Its dramatic centrepiece is a section actually entitled ‘Football’. This begins with the sound of a referee’s whistle and then juxtaposes Western and Soviet musical styles in vivid battle music with an onstage band of military drums and extra brass instruments, its concluding passage achieving a similar intensity to the long crescendo of the famous invasion episode in
the middle of the first movement of the Leningrad Symphony.

Shostakovich’s second football-themed work is far less known. In 1944 he was commissioned by Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s notorious chief of police and head of the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB), to write music for a wartime propaganda show entitled Russian River to be performed by the Song and Dance Ensemble of the NKVD. Given Beria’s fearful reputation, it was a commission Shostakovich could hardly refuse. In addition, he must have calculated that by furnishing the NKVD with appropriate material, he would be afforded a degree of protection during difficult times. Shostakovich was certainly prepared to flatter his patron. Knowing that Beria was a particularly enthusiastic football player, he decided to cast the second movement of his piece as a football-themed score intended to accompany a full-scale choreographic representation of the game on the stage.

Though rarely performed, the uproarious football music in Russian River provides a possible clue to our understanding of an entirely different work. When Shostakovich unveiled his three-movement Sixth Symphony to audiences for the first time in 1939, both audience and critics were puzzled by the apparent emotional disconnect between the morbid and introspective opening movement and more upbeat nature of the Scherzo and Finale. Trying to decipher Shostakovich’s intentions in the Finale proves particularly challenging. Is the music, with its mixture of insouciant galloping rhythms that parody Rossini and Mozart and the breathless vulgar sounds of the fairground, meant to sound ironic and sarcastic? Or can we interpret the movement as a piece of escapism, intended to deflect attention away from torrid political context of the Stalinist show trials
of the late 1930s at the time when the work was written?

Perhaps the escapism portrayed here by Shostakovich is in fact another football scene, but presented on a much more ambitious symphonic scale than in his other works. Certainly, the close resemblance between the insistent gallop rhythms that make up the football music for Russian River and the Finale of the Sixth Symphony is tangible. But in the Finale of the Sixth, Shostakovich was able to encompass even more aspects of the game than in his other scores. Instead of battle music or simple dance rhythms, the Finale not only conveys the physical excitement of a gladiatorial contest between opposing teams but also the whole gamut of emotions that spectators at all football matches experience, from triumphant highs to despondent lows.

Given the unstable and precarious nature of artistic life in the Soviet Union, it would certainly have been a masterstroke on Shostakovich’s part to have been so openly connected with such a popular national sport, however much he genuinely loved the game anyway. In a totalitarian system, all the actions and interests of the country’s most favoured artists came under intense scrutiny, as he was all too aware. 

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Dmitri Braginsky’s Shostakovich and Football: Escape to Freedom, is published by DSCH