Program Notes

The horrors of the Second World War loomed large for Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75), perhaps more so than any other Soviet composer. Nazi persecutions of Jewish people and other dissidents reflected his own tribulations with the Soviet regime, and the friends and colleagues who had disappeared into the night during Stalin’s purges. The E minor Piano Trio of 1944, his second, can be heard as a tribute and lament not only for one specific individual—Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky, about whom more to follow—but for all those obliterated by the grinding machine of war.

“I cannot express in words all the grief I felt when I received the news of the death of Ivan Ivanovich,” wrote Shostakovich to Sollertinsky’s widow in February 1944. “He was my closest friend. I owe all my education to him. It will be unbelievably hard for me to live without him.” Sollertinsky had been a dear and important friend, indeed: Musicologist, critic, and a fine writer on music, he had championed Shostakovich through times good and bad and had just recently travelled to Siberia to give introductory talks on Shostakovich’s new Eighth Symphony. Although Shostakovich had begun what was to become the second piano trio before Sollertinsky’s death from a heart attack at age forty-one, it was the loss of his cherished friend and colleague that spurred the work on to a rapid completion in the spring of 1944.

It’s hard not to envision the recently revealed death camps of Treblinka and Majdanek in the trio’s frozen opening, as the cello carves out a bleak melody in extremely high harmonics, so much so that the violin seems like a bass instrument when it enters and reveals that melody as the subject of an informal fugue. The piano establishes the extreme bass with its entry, and eventually the instrumental ranges right themselves, as it were, into a normal configuration. The first movement cannot be pinned down with a brief formal description; it’s Shostakovich at his most volatile, changeable, quixotic, unsettled, and enigmatic.

The second-place Allegro non troppo presents a scherzo-like movement written in white heat, in Shostakovich’s most savage and biting idiom. (Shostakovich has to be one of the very few composers who can make the major mode sound far darker and more ominous than the minor.) Only fleeting moments of dance-like joy emerge from what is overall a frantically supercharged dance of death.

In third place comes one of the composer’s most profoundly moving laments, a Largo that was played at Shostakovich’s funeral three decades later. A near-static series of repeated piano chords creates the ancient cyclic form of the passacaglia, used frequently by both Shostakovich and his friend and colleague Benjamin Britten.

Whether the last movement is overtly programmatic or not, the sense of Jewish people sent to their deaths in the Nazi camps is palpable. A middle section evokes Klezmer music, at first celebratory but progressively warped into music of horrific destructive power. After a sudden halt, gentle shimmering arpeggios in the piano lead to a reminiscence of the work’s very opening; a return to the stark bleakness from which the trio originally arose.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

(May 2019)

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