SHOSTAKOVICH:  PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 IN C MINOR, OPUS 35

Concerto No. 1 in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings, Opus 35

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and died August 9, 1975, in Moscow. The Piano Concerto No. 1 was written between March 6 and July 20, 1933, and premiered October 15, 1933, in the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic with Fritz Stiedry conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, trumpet player Alexander Nikolaievich Schmidt, and the composer as pianist. Later, in 1934, Eugene List was soloist in the first North American performance, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski’s direction. Jorgen Nielsen was piano soloist in the first SFS performances, with trumpet player Charles Bubb, and Pierre Monteux conducting. The most recent performances, in March 2006, were led by Mstislav Rostropovich and featured pianist Yefim Bronfman and former SFS principal trumpet player Glenn Fischthal. The score calls for a standard string orchestra of two violin sections, violas, cellos, and basses. Performance time: about twenty-two minutes.

Shostakovich’s is one of the most fascinating of all artists’ biographies. The subject is a critic’s and historian’s dream—a composer who has added indispensable works to the orchestral, chamber, and operatic repertory; a man who could commit himself neither to heroism nor to moral and intellectual slavery; whose actions cover so wide a range from the noble to the base; whose music exhibits such divergence between public and private works; whose achievement is so uneven, not just among works but within them; who functioned in a society singularly, even tyrannically demanding of its artists; whose every anguished photograph screams for an answer to the question, “Who is this man?” The scores exist and we can study them. It would be hard, though, to think of a composer whose work is more immediately, more intensely, more drastically affected by life—his own of course, but also that of the world in and for which he wrote.

Shostakovich spent his career falling in and out of favor with the Communist authorities. His sassy Symphony No. 1 launched him on a promising career upon his graduation, in 1926, from the Conservatory in his native Saint Petersburg. Within a few years of this auspicious debut, however, his satirical opera The Nose (staged in 1930) ran afoul of Soviet politicos, and the powerful Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians denounced its “bourgeois decadence.” Shostakovich earned official redemption through his Piano Concerto No. 1, and everything proceeded more or less smoothly until early 1936, when Stalin decided to see the Shostakovich opera everyone was talking about, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Denunciation in the press ensued, after which his heroic Fifth Symphony (1937) won him favor once again. Twice in succession, in 1940 and 1941, he was awarded the Stalin Prize. Then, in 1945, his star fell again when his Ninth Symphony struck the bureaucrats as insufficient to reflect the glory of Russia’s victory over the Nazis. By 1948, Shostakovich found himself condemned along with a group of his composer colleagues for “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music, alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.” He responded with a pathetic acknowledgement of guilt—“[I] began to speak a language incomprehensible to the people. . . . I know that the party is right. . . . I am deeply grateful for the criticism contained in the resolution”—and the next year redeemed himself with The Song of the Forests, a nationalistic oratorio that gained him yet another Stalin Prize (backed by 100,000 rubles).

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet government stopped bullying artists quite so much. But by then Shostakovich had grown traumatized and paranoid. He retreated to a somewhat conservative creative stance and until 1960 contented himself with writing generally lighter fare, keeping his musical behavior in check, as if he suspected the Soviet cultural thaw were simply an illusion that might reverse itself at any moment. In 1960, he embarked on a late period of highly expressive productivity.

His Piano Concerto No. 1 was composed in the aftermath of the official censure he received for his opera The Nose following its staging in mid-January 1930. The composer was stung by the attack but realized that he had no option but to atone, or at least behave in a way that could be interpreted as an attempt to atone. Yet in October 1930 his ballet The Golden Age proved another setback. Among other things, it was considered a glorification of the bourgeois music hall so Shostakovich’s decision to get involved next with what was essentially a musical revue with popular overtones—its title is often translated as Hypothetically Murdered—does seem strange.

Some drastic step was needed, and Shostakovich took it later that fall when he issued a self-flagellating tract he titled “Declaration of a Composer’s Duties,” in which he confessed the wrong-headedness of essentially all the theater and film music he had written to date and deplored the low state to which music had sunk in such collaborative ventures. Yet again, the official response was harsh: Shostakovich, the authorities insisted, was shifting the burden of his own shortcomings onto his collaborators and, even worse, he wasn’t behaving like a team player. Nonetheless, his tract did stir up useful conversation in the musical bureaucracy. One of the upshots was the formation of the Union of Soviet Composers, and when the Leningrad branch was formed, in August 1932, Shostakovich was named to its governing board. By then he had embarked on the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which (ironically) would occasion his next political flogging when it was produced a few years later.

During this period of turmoil, Shostakovich had all but ceased appearing as a concert pianist, which had been an essential strand of his earlier musical persona. As an emerging musician, he was torn over whether he should focus on composition or performance. He could have gone in either direction; when he graduated from Leningrad Conservatory he possessed sufficient technique and chutzpah to include Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata in his senior recital. Although his emphasis on composition became clear soon enough, he did continue to perform regularly as a pianist for many years and a good number of recordings attest to his persuasiveness as a decisive, rather ascetic interpreter of his own music.

In early 1933 he found himself focusing on the keyboard again, at first producing a series of Twenty-four Preludes and, on the heels of that cycle, his First Piano Concerto. It was his earliest concerto for any instrument, and he noted that "this was my first attempt at filling an important gap in Soviet instrumental music, which lacks full-scale concerto-type works." Other Soviet concertos of importance would follow shortly, including Dmitri Kabalevsky's popular G minor Piano Concerto in 1935 and Aram Khachaturian's Piano Concerto in 1936.

At about the time he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1, Shostakovich told a friend that he was considering giving up composing and returning to his career as a concert pianist, an understandable temptation in light of the problems his compositions had caused him. Fortunately, the concerto proved wildly successful when it was premiered on the opening concert of the Leningrad Philharmonic's 1933-34 season—“the composer played exquisitely,” reported his friend Isaak Glikman—and it quickly entered the repertory. Shostakovich wisely refused to comment on the “inner meaning” of this work, not that he wasn’t asked. He would go only this far, in an article that appeared in the publication Sovetskoye Iskusstvo on December 14, 1933: “I am a Soviet composer. Our age, as I perceive it, is heroic, spirited and joyful. This is what I wanted to convey in my concerto. It is for the audience, and possibly the music critics, to judge whether or not I succeeded.”

This left delighted listeners to revel in the concerto’s optimistic bonhomie and its understated references to Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Rossini, Mahler, and various styles of popular music; and it left the critics without anything to attack. There were doubters, to be sure: Shostakovich's composition teacher from his conservatory years, Maximilian Steinberg, was put off by its impudent character, and the composer Nicolai Miaskovsky described it condescendingly as "brilliant, with philistinism." But on the whole this work was an important success for Shostakovich and seems to have gotten him back on track as a composer. With the premiere of his First Piano Concerto, he at last gave up performing the concert repertory that had won him acclaim—including concertos by Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev—and would henceforth appear only as a performer of his own compositions, often of this work.

The title-page inscription “Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings” is decidedly unusual and has led to confusion about whether this is actually a piano concerto or a double concerto (or perhaps a sinfonia concertante) for piano and trumpet. Shostakovich later told his student Evgeny Makarov that when he started working on this piece he envisioned it as a trumpet concerto. As he progressed, he began imagining a piano part, which eventually ended up emerging in his score as the solo instrument. The trumpet was still there; but whereas the piece was originally going to spotlight the trumpet, with a supporting part from the piano and the string orchestra, the roles became reversed.

The concerto's wit begins with the piano's opening roulade: a C major scale going down, landing on D-flat, emphatically a "wrong note," and then a D-flat major scale going up, this one completing its octave properly but then modulating slyly back to C. The piano immediately moves to another idea, a deep-voiced, murmuring theme that may evoke Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata or perhaps something heroic by Chopin. The strings answer, also sounding serious, but the piano soon provides a quicker overlay to their music, and as the rhythms grow faster the movement takes on a more lighthearted character—at moments quite Gallic, à la Poulenc. The trumpet finally makes its entrance in a fugato passage, with the piano playing riotously over top. All of this devolves into a sort of off-key fanfare motif, which then goes on to fuel a punchy section with an unmistakably Slavic flavor. The mood continues to shift, sometimes turning on a dime from the melancholy to the giddy, but generally shot through with a measure of nervousness; and at the end the piano revives its opening “Appassionata-ish” theme, with the trumpet offering a low-pitched, sustained obbligato in the background: a decidedly mournful effect.

The movements in this concerto flow without breaks. For the second, the strings install mutes, the better to accompany, and later echo, the piano's wistful melody. The tension and volume build, and the piano launches into a short passage of Bachian mien that becomes a kind of accompanied recitative. When the trumpet enters, it does so with a mute, and again it sticks to its middle and lower register to convey a sense of melancholy and mystery, which the piano and strings carry through to the movement's end.

Bach pays another visit in the piano's opening solo of the third movement. This opening leads to a richly scored and generally despondent span. Running only a minute and a half, this entire movement feels, in retrospect, like an introduction to the finale. The point of demarcation is marked by a quick ascending scale in the piano. This concluding movement sparkles, though with an unmistakably sardonic touch (a Shostakovich fingerprint). The trumpet lets loose a phrase from Haydn, but nothing much is made of it. Shostakovich ratchets up the tempo and introduces some jazz rhythms; and a bit later the trumpet gets its big solo turn. Despite all the episodic playfulness, Shostakovich manages to fuse all together with thematic continuity.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Yefim Bronfman with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and trumpet player Thomas Stevens (Sony)  |  Dmitri Shostakovich with André Cluytens conducting the ORTF National Orchestra and trumpet player Ludovic Vaillant (EMI)  |  Martha Argerich with Jörg Faerber conducting the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra Heilbronn and trumpet player Guy Touvron (Deutsche Grammophon) 

Reading:  Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, by Elizabeth Wilson (Princeton)  |  Shostakovich: A Life, by Laurel Fay (Oxford)  |  Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich, by Dmitri and Ludmila Sollertinsky (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

DVD:  Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Shostakovich and the Fifth Symphony, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also available at keepingscore.org.

(April 2014)