Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Shostakovich, shrapnel, and chronic poliomyelitis

Michael Yafi
Houston Texas, United States


Pencil drawing of Shostakovich
Illustration by Elena Toponogova Pianist, London, U.K

The life of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) has fascinated artists, musicologists, and physicians who have tried to make a connection between his medical history and musical repertoire.

Having once said, “When I hear about someone else’s pain, I feel pain too,” Shostakovich was known to be very sensitive. He internalized stress, which often manifested in somatic symptoms. His love-hate relationship with the Soviet regime also contributed to fluctuations in his life and mood. He talked constantly about pain, describing his life under Stalin’s regime as “unbelievably mean and hard. Every day brought more bad news and I felt so much pain. I was so lonely and afraid.”1

In 1936 he was denounced as an “enemy of the people” by the Soviet regime after Stalin attended and disliked the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District. Dmitri was “as white as a sheet” when he saw Stalin in the audience, an experience which increased his fears and paranoid thinking. He was known to have kept a small suitcase packed in case of arrest and slept in the stairwell out of fear. He reflected on this anxiety: “When a man is in despair, it means that he still believes in something.”

Shostakovich was able to fix his problems with the authorities after the great success of his fifth symphony, followed by the seventh, which he composed during the siege of Leningrad.2 However in 1948 he was denounced for formalism in art along with Prokofiev and Khachaturian. In the early 1960s he was formally asked to join the Communist Party and to become the General Secretary of the Composers’ Union.3 His health began to deteriorate at that time.

There have been many theories about the connection between his health and music, including a postulation that he had been injured during the siege of Leningrad and had a piece of German shrapnel in his brain for the last thirty-four years of his life, which helped him compose music.4 While musical hallucinations may be associated with temporal lobe lesions, there was no documentation of such an injury. Furthermore, Shostakovich was not in Leningrad during its siege.

He had many years of sensory and motor symptoms associated with frequent falls and was finally diagnosed with chronic poliomyelitis.5 He frequently joked about having a “children’s disease.” It is hard to know if this diagnosis was medically correct or if his frequent falls and muscle weakness were a manifestation of spinal cord involvement from another condition. He suffered from multiple heart attacks in the last decade of his life and died in 1975. The official Soviet press agency, Tass, acknowledged that Shostakovich had died “after a grave illness” but offered no medical details.



  1. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20150807-shostakovich-the-composer-who-was-almost-purged
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitri_Shostakovich
  3. https://www.artsjournal.com/uq/2020/05/why-did-shostakovich-join-the-party.html
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/07/10/arts/music-view-did-shostakovich-have-a-secret.html
  5. https://hekint.org/2019/08/23/shostakovich-and-his-mysterious-neurologic-disease/?highlight=shostakovich
  6. https://www.nytimes.com/1975/08/11/archives/dmitri-shostakovich-dead-at-68-after-hospitalization-in-moscow.html




MICHAEL YAFI, MD, is a Professor and Director for The Division of Pediatric Endocrinology at UTHealth, (The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston).


Summer 2020  |  Sections  |  Music Box

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