Terry Grimley looks at the legacy of Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, whose centenary year is being celebrated with performances across the West Midlands this spring...

Dmitry Shostakovich was one of the great composers of the 20th century. If you take the view that it was above all a tragic century, he was arguably the 20th century composer.

What sets him aside from most of his contemporaries is that he is a leading example of an artist who lived most of his creative life under a repressive regime with which some degree of compromise was inevitable.

His music, with all its triumphs and flaws, can never be entirely separated out from its political context.

It is no surprise that his vast output varies widely in quality, from masterpieces to hackwork. Its backbone consists of 15 symphonies spanning nearly half a century from 1925 to 1971 and on a more intimate level, the same number of string quartets.

His music spans nearly every conceivable form from solo piano and chamber music to large choral and orchestral works, from ballets (The Age of Gold chronicles the adventures of a Soviet football team on tour in a fascist country - the composer was football-mad) to opera and even a kind of musical comedy in Cheryomushki, his ironic tribute to a brave new Moscow housing estate.

He wrote large quantities of film music, most of it for Soviet films unknown in the west but including the version of Hamlet which proved a hit here in the mid-1960s: I remember being given the morning off school to see it.

Though most of his career was spent in conditions of acute political anxiety, it started optimistically. The first decade following the Revolution was a time of enthusiastic avant-garde experiment in the arts, conducted in a paternalistic quasi-democratic spirit, and Shostakovich's spiky and precocious First Symphony, his graduation piece from the Petrograd Conservatoire at the age of 19, was a representative product of it.

The next two symphonies, both with parts for chorus, were much more in the spirit of State propaganda and have never caught on in the west. The performance of the Third which Valery Grigoriev will conduct with the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus at Symphony Hall in May will be its Birmingham debut.

If the Stalin years from 1928 to 1953 were difficult for Shostakovich, they were obviously much more so for many of his fellow citizens, many of whom failed to survive them.

Shostakovich's obvious gifts gave him a privileged status, but one where he constantly had to walk a tightrope to avoid official condemnation.

There were two points in his career when state interference in artistic matters plunged him into crisis. The first came in 1936 when Stalin attended a performance of his initially successful opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Stalin's disapproval was reflected in the official newspaper Pravda, with an article headlined "Noise instead of Music".

Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Shostakovich hastily withdrew his Fourth Symphony, then in rehearsal, and replaced it with the rapidly-composed and far more conventional Fifth, grovellingly inscribed "A Soviet artist's response to justified criticism".

An irony invariably overlooked is that the Fifth Symphony has always been by far his most popular in the west, which has always been free to prefer the more modernist, eccentric and unpredictable Fourth - at least since 1961, when it finally had its much-delayed first performance.

The second crisis came in 1948, when a postwar tightening-up led to Shostakovich and his elder colleague Prokofiev being called to account for their alleged "formalism" by the mediocrities appointed to police music on behalf of the people's taste.

The thawing of the post-Stalin years brought more artistic freedom, reflected for example in the Symphony no 13, Babi Yar, which sets poems by Yevtushenko including one dealing with anti-semitism.

But in 1960 political pressure contributed to another crisis which plunged Shostakovich into despair. Some believe that his Eighth String Quartet, written at great speed at this point, is more or less literally a suicide note.

Internationally renowned as a composer of symphonies during his lifetime, Shostakovich's string quartets have grown more gradually in reputation, in recent years coming to challenge Bartok's as the most highly valued cycle by a 20th century composer.

The two violin concertos - particularly the first - contain music as weighty as the symphonies, whereas those for piano are more relaxed. The second of these, written in 1957 for his son Maxim to play, is an exemplary piece of entertainment which contains one of the century's most meltingly lovely slow movements.

Thoughts of mortality dominate the last two symphonies, one of them a cycle of songs for two singers, the other a conventional four-movement piece which is anything but conventional in tone, with its poker-faced quotations from the William Tell overture in the first movement. In parts this final Symphony no 15 is as bleak in its contemplation of the abyss as anything in Shakespeare or Samuel Beckett.

On the whole, then, Shostakovich's music is not a barrel of laughs. But some of it is among the most powerful in any genre to have been created in the last century - so much so, in fact, that it is best experienced in the concert hall, particularly when it comes to the epic wartime symphonies like numbers Seven (the once-notorious Leningrad, written during the city's siege) and Eight. These symphonies are simply too big for your hi-fi.

By turns heroic, anti-heroic, ironic, anguished and almost unbearably poignant (as in the magnificent slow movement of the First Violin Concerto, where the soloist seems stunned into stuttering inarticulacy at one point by the sheer tragic beauty of the music), it is classical music for what is still - regrettably, in many respects - the modern age.

* American violinist Leila Josefowicz plays Shostakovich's Violin Concerto no 1 with the CBSO and Sakari Oramo at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on Tuesday and Thursday, and at Warwick Arts Centre on Wednesday. The Birmingham performances are being recorded live by Warner Classics.