He studied with his mother, a professional pianist, and then with Shteynberg at the Petrograd Conservatory (1919-25): his graduation piece was his Symphony no.1, which brought him early international attention. His creative development, however, was determined more by events at home. Like many Soviet composers of his generation, he tried to reconcile the musical revolutions of his time with the urge to give a voice to revolutionary socialism, most conspicuously in his next two symphonies, no.2 ('To October') and no.3 ('The First of May'), both with choral finales. At the same time he used what he knew of contemporary Western music (perhaps Prokofiev and Krenek mostly) to give a sharp grotesqueness and mechanical movement to his operatic satire "The Nose", while expressing a similar keen irony in major works for the ballet ("The Age of Gold", "The Bolt") and the cinema ("New Babylon"). But the culminating achievement of these quick-witted, nervy years was his second opera "The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District", where high emotion and acid parody are brought together in a score of immense brilliance.
"Lady Macbeth" was received with acclaim in Russia, western Europe and the USA, and might have seemed to confirm Shostakovich as essentially a dramatic composer: by the time he was 30, in 1936, he was known for two operas and three full-length ballets, besides numerous scores for the theatre and films, whereas only one purely orchestral symphony had been performed, and one string quartet. However, in that same year "Lady Macbeth" was fiercely attacked in Pravda, and he set aside his completed Symphony no.4 (it was not performed until 1961), no doubt fearing that its Mahlerian intensity and complexity would spur further criticism. Instead he began a new symphony, no.5, much more conventional in its form and tunefulness - though there is a case for hearing the finale as an internal send-up of the heroic style. This was received favourably, by the state and indeed by Shostakovich's international public, and seems to have turned him from the theatre to the concert hall. There were to be no more operas or ballets, excepting a comedy and a revision of Lady Macbeth; instead he devoted himself to symphonies, concertos, quartets and songs (as well as heroic, exhortatory cantatas during the war years).
Of the next four symphonies, no.7 is an epic with an uplifting war-victory programme (it was begun in besieged Leningrad), while the others display more openly a dichotomy between optimism and introspective doubt, expressed with varying shades of irony. It has been easy to explain this in terms of Shostakovich's position as a public artist in the USSR during the age of socialist realism, but the divisions and ironies in his music go back to his earliest works and seem inseparable from the very nature of his harmony, characterized by a severely weakened sense of key. Even so, his position in official Soviet music certainly was difficult. In 1948 he was condemned again, and for five years he wrote little besides patriotic cantatas and private music (quartets, the 24 Preludes and Fugues which constitute his outstanding piano work).
Stalin's death in 1953 opened the way to a less rigid aesthetic, and Shostakovich returned to the symphony triumphantly with no.10. Nos.11 and 12 are both programme works on crucial years in revolutionary history (1905 and 1917), but then no.13 was his most outspokenly critical work, incorporating a setting of words that attack anti-semitism. The last two symphonies and the last four quartets, as well as other chamber pieces and songs, belong to a late period of spare texture, slowness and gravity, often used explicitly in images of death: Symphony no.14 is a song cycle on mortality, though no.15 remains more enigmatic in its open quotations from Rossini and Wagner.