Program Notes

Dmitri Shostakovich’s magnificent E minor Piano Trio was his Piano Trio No. 2; his first, a one-movement piece in C minor, was a student work, composed in 1923 and published as his Opus 8. Shostakovich (1906-75) wrote this E minor Trio in memory of Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky, who died on February 11, 1944, at the age of only forty-one, of a heart attack while in evacuation in Siberia with the Leningrad Philharmonic, which he was then serving as artistic director. Sollertinsky was a brilliant musicologist, music critic, linguist, professor (at Leningrad University), and administrator. He had become close friends with Shostakovic in 1927, opened the composer’s eyes to the glory of Mahler, and had stood by him through the darkest days. “I cannot express in words all of the grief I felt when I received the news of the death of Ivan Ivanovich … who was my closest friend,” Shostakovich wrote to Sollertinsky’s widow. “I owe all my education to him.”

Shostakovich had already begun thinking about writing a piano trio, but Sollertinsky’s death seems to have focused his commitment to the project. His response to this loss is clearly reflected in the elegiac portions of this trio, which seem a fitting tribute to such a brave friend. This is, moreover, a wartime work—the death camps of Majdanek and Treblinka had recently been discovered in the wake of the Nazis’ retreat from the eastern front—and its macabre aspects surely evoke the extremes of joy and bitterness that must have been juxtaposed in daily life at such a time.

The cello launches this transcendent work in unlikely fashion, playing an Andante lamentation in harmonics at pitches so high that when the violin enters, in canon, it serves briefly as a bass to the cello’s melody. The piano, deep in its register, soon takes over that role, and the violin assumes the role of portraying reality, as opposed to the shadowy Doppelg√§nger of the cello’s wincing, hazy harmonics. To the piano goes the honor of articulating the movement’s main theme, Moderato, against a repeated-note accompaniment in the strings. It’s a nervous movement, flitting between moments of transparent neo-Baroque happiness, folk-like depictions of Russian life, muted reflection, and even angry defiance.

From E minor we shift brashly to F-sharp major for the often riotous, sometimes menacing scherzo, built from a theme whose simplistic, cast-off triads sound sarcastic. Though the movement is headed Allegro con brio (Fast with spirit), the string parts carry such indications as marcatissimo, pesante (strongly accented, heavy), suggesting the stylistic schizophrenia particularly associated with the composer. Shostakovich’s sardonic inclinations are tamed somewhat for what might be taken for a contrasting trio, a giddy waltz in G major. The speed of this movement can prove problematic. Yakov Milkis, a violist in the Leningrad Philharmonic, reported having asked the composer about the tempos in this piece. Said Milkis:

As a general rule, the metronome markings in the score were always faster than the tempos taken during performance. . . . For instance, take the Second Piano Trio. There the metronome marking of the scherzo is so fast as to render it virtually unperformable. Once, while I was studying this trio, I happened to be in Komarovo when Dmitri Dmitriyevich was also staying there. I plucked up the courage to ask him about the markings, not only the fast speed of the scherzo, but the very slow speed indicated for the third movement. He answered, “You know, take no notice. I use this rickety old metronome, and I know I should have thrown it out years ago, as it’s completely unreliable, but I have got so attached to it that I keep it. But you, as a musician, should just play as you feel the music and take no notice of those markings, take no notice.”

The Largo, in the dark key of B-flat minor, is one of Shostakovich’s great threnodies. As he had in his Piano Quintet of 1940, the composer here draws inspiration from Bach, setting the movement’s opening as a vast, emotionally desolate passacaglia: the piano repeats its deep-voiced, eight-measure chordal progression six times as the strings weave in counterpoint above.

A quiet drumming figure in the piano leads us from this reverie into the finale (Allegretto), which, like the scherzo, juxtaposes joy and sorrow in such a way as to intensify emotions in both directions. Ian MacDonald, writing in The New Shostakovich, says that “horrified by stories that SS guards had made their victims dance beside their own graves, Shostakovich created a directly programmatic image it of it.” Although Shostakovich was not Jewish, he felt a strong affinity with what he considered the most persecuted people of Europe (and, of course, virulent anti-Semitism was sanctioned by the Soviet government). Themes of an unmistakably Jewish character appear in a good many of Shostakovich’s works; the “Jewish” tune that pervades this finale, introduced pizzicato by the violin, would make a return appearance in Shostakovich’s autobiographical String Quartet No. 8.

The shell-shocked, or otherwise stunned, danse macabre unrolls propulsively, though contrasting passages of broad lyricism and a curious dollop of densely contrapuntal atonality cast it into relief along the way, recalling somewhat the structure of a rondo. At the end, the dance gives way to a return of material we have heard before: memories of the first movement’s theme, the muted anguish of stratospheric strings, a fleeting glimpse of the piano’s passacaglia from the slow movement.

Written as a memorial in part for Sollertinsky, in part for all the oppressed of the world Shostakovich mourned, this trio would eventually be pressed into service for the composer’s own obsequies. When he died and his body was honored by the public which lined up to pay tribute in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the slow movement of the E minor Piano Trio was one of the works played to accompany the sad proceedings.

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

(October 2017)

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