Shostakovich the football fan

If ever there was a composer who loved football, it is Dmitri Shostakovich. The Russian musician was a keen supporter of his home city Leningrad's teams, the Dynamo then the Zenit. He even dedicated a ballet to football: The Golden Age.

Shostakovich the football fan
Dmitri Shostakovich Watching His Favourite Spartak Football, © Getty / Heritage Images

He did not go unnoticed in the stands. With his little round glasses, well-cut suit and distinguished air, Shostakovich looked out of place among the other supporters, most of whom were from working class backgrounds. And yet the composer's love for football in general and the Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) team in particular bordered on the obsessional. "He had an idealised vision of the game", explains his great friend Isaak Glikman, adding that Shostakovich "watched the matches in silence, but the expressions that washed over his face betrayed his feelings".

A well-documented passion

Thanks to the many letters Shostakovich exchanged with friends such as Isaak Glikman, his love for football is extremely well documented. Over 100 letters written in the artist's hand refer to football; some of them speak of nothing else, in fact. Many of his contemporaries have mentioned Shostakovich's love of football, which is how we know that he sometimes curtailed his lessons at the Conservatory so that he could go to a match, or asked his friends to reserve seats for him when he was on tour.

What the composer enjoyed most about "the ballet of the masses", as he called it, was analysing the game. Shostakovich wrote several articles in the Soviet sporting press dissecting the exploits of the Leningrad Zenit or Dynamo. Most importantly, though, as Anthony Bateman explains in his book Sport, Music, Identities, throughout his life the musician kept notebooks in which he painstakingly jotted down, on a daily basis, the dates of matches, the lists of Soviet teams, the players' nicknames and all of the results.

Shostakovich's passion was not purely theoretical: he also liked to play his favourite sport. In Elizabeth Wilson's biography, Shostakovich: A life Remembered, she relays the story told by a friend of the composer, Yuri Petrovich Lyubimov: "He insisted that I join him in his football matches.He played with gusto, he really threw his heart into it.Once I unintentionally hit his glasses with the ball and they fell off his nose.He was bothered but said 'It doesn't matter, it's all part of the game!".

Shostakovich may not have been very skillful with the ball, but his impressive knowledge of the rules and techniques of football meant he was able to obtain the highest referee's diploma. There are no documents to prove that the composer ever actually refereed an official match, but his status entitled him to free entry to all Soviet matches.

The Golden Age, a sporting and political ballet

Dmitri Shostakovich said he had always dreamed of composing a football anthem. His wish was almost fulfilled in 1930 when he wrote the score for the ballet The Golden Age to a libretto by Alexander Ivanosky. Initially entited Dynamiada,The Golden Age tells the adventures of a football team that discovers the capitalist world on a trip to the West, in a country called Fascist Country. The story is inspired by a real trip made in Europe by the Dynamo Moscow in the 1920s. On stage, Western decadence is represented by dances that were prohibited at the time in the URSS, such as the foxtrot and the French cancan.

However, as Anthony Bateman demonstrates, the ballet's plot is mostly political. To understand this reading of the work, audiences need to bear in mind that it was forbidden in the URSS for sportspeople to turn professional. Athletes could only be amateurs, and each club was under the control of a State department or a ministry. The Dynamo was administrated by the  People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the equivalent of the political police. In the ballet, the team consisting of public servants, class soldiers, was not there just for a sports competition: it had come to destroy a capitalist country. Which it did.

Shostakovich and the mixing of genres

The promiscuity between sport and politics, which was omnipresent in the Soviet Union, could also be sensed in Shostakovich's sports analyses. During World War II, when the composer sang the praises of the Leningrad football team in his articles, it was admittedly out of his love for football, but it was also a tribute to the inhabitants of his home town, Leningrad, then under siege. For all his dissident views of the Soviet regime, his passion for football, a symbol of working class culture, also sprang from his attachment to Communist ideology and egalitarian values. And in his life, football was also intertwined with his work as a composer. His sport notebooks, for example, also contained jottings about his artistic work. Perhaps the prime example of this mixing of genres was when Shostakovich invited the Zenit team to dinner at his home one evening and finished the evening at the piano, playing his music to the footballers he admired.