Did Dmitri Shostakovich Have Shrapnel Stuck in His Skull?

Dmitri Shostakovich at his piano.
Dmitri Shostakovich at his piano. © MICHAEL OZERSKY/GETTY IMAGES

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one of the 20th century’s top composers. Apparently a sensitive man, he laboured under the psychotic totalitarian rule of Joseph Stalin.

Despite the ongoing popularity of his music, Shostakovic remains an enigma.

Particularly regarding his health, with a rumour about a piece of shrapnel doing the rounds to this day.

About Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich was a Soviet and Russian composer. Along with his music, he’s famous for a fractious relationship with the Soviet government.

He grew up in St. Petersburg and was showing impressive musical skills from a young age.

As a teenager he improved his craft, composed, and studied. He was quickly picked up by the higher ranks of Soviet life to work as a composer and pianist.

He had a pretty dry style, notable for his ambivalent tone.

He focussed on compositions and writing the likes of Symphony No. 2 in. B Major (1927), but also worked on satirical works.

Most notably, he developed out a version of Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose. He gave that a full concert performance in 1929.

Thereafter his life became somewhat plagued by denunciations by Joseph Stalin.

In 1936, Stalin and his ohorts attended Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Poor Shostakovich (very shy and normally struggling enough with any live performance) was panic-stricken.

Accounts say he was as white as a sheet during the performance. And he later admitted in letters to a friend he was terrified every time Stalin looked indifferent during the performance.

Although he’s recognised as a genius now, at the time the press in the Soviet Union was on his case. And Stalin often left his concerts without uttering a word.

This seemed to leave the poor Shostakovich with a nervous affliction for the rest of his life.

Shostakovich, Leningrad, and Shrapnel

In the above clip from 1975 (shortly before his death), he’s discussing opera. And the right way to sing it in various countries.

Unfortunately, you can clearly see his ill health. There’s a bit of an unusual story about what was wrong with him.

One legend has it he was wounded during the battle of Leningrad (while he was composing), with shrapnel entering his skull.

There it remained for the final 34 years of his life. Apparently.

If he tilted his head at certain angles, he could hear melodies. And this could help him to compose.

It sounds befitting of the man. But is it true? No. There are no documents on record suggesting Shostakovich suffered this injury.

He did suffer from many health problems later in his life, including frequent heart attacks and sensory and motor issues. These led him to fall over quite a lot.

He struggled to pick up objects, brush his teeth, and hang his coat up. So, we feel, there was a serious neurological issue at work.

We’re not doctors, of course, but the idea some shrapnel was responsible seems rather more likely to meet some urban legend about the mysterious Shostakovich.

A fanciful notion to add to the composer’s legend.

Despite his health issues, he still smoked like a chimney and drank a lot of vodka.

One neurologist in the Soviet Union suggested he had chronic poliomyelitis. Others thought it was a motor neuron disease (such as ALS).

His health issues began in the early 1950s and he survived for over 20 years. So it’s unlikely to be ALS. But his condition will likely remain forever undiagnosed.

Shostakovich did formally join the Communist Party in 1960, which eased burdens on his life.

But his health issues became so bad, particularly with his right hand, he could no longer play the piano. And he broke both of his legs in separate falls.

He did have a sense of humour about this, writing in one letter:

“Target achieved so far: 75% (right leg broken, left leg broken, right hand defective). All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.”

In 1975, he died in Moscow aged 68. The New York Times reported in Shostakovich Dead at 68:

“He had a spacious apartment in Moscow and a pleasant country home about 30 miles from Moscow that he rented from the Soviet Government. Although he was a chainsmoker and rather nervous in his movements, he was not temperamental and could compose as easily in the city as in the country. He worked quickly, usually composing without a piano and notating his ideas directly on the score. He was a brilliant pianist and frequently played solo parts in premieres of his own works.”

If anything, we think this story highlights the nature of Chinese whispers doing the rounds. Because of course Shostakovich would have metal lodged in his brain!

And Elvis is alive and well and living on the Moon. And we saw Mozart surfing some clouds yesterday on a white horse. Magic? Or nonsense. You decide.

12 comments

  1. Great job ! – But don’t tell me that he speaks in English? otherwise I’ll cry over my inability to understand a word of English in a Russian accent – in fact, having been to Moscow, I realized that I understand English in a Russian way very badly 😦 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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