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PROGRAM NOTES: Shostakovich II

by Eric Bromberger

Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Opus 8 (1923)


Born September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg

Died August 9, 1975, Moscow

For years, audiences knew of only one Shostakovich piano trio, the Trio in E Minor of 1944. But Shostakovich had written a Piano Trio in C Minor in 1923, when he was a 17-year-old student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Though he did not have it published, he did perform the music in public and listed it as his Opus 8. In the sequence of Shostakovich’s work, this trio comes just before the First Symphony of 1925, which catapulted the composer to worldwide fame. Like several other of Shostakovich’s early works, it dropped out of sight and remained unknown, in this case for sixty years.

In 1981, six years after Shostakovich’s death, his pupil Boris Tischenko prepared a performing edition of the trio. This was necessary because some small sections of the manuscript had disappeared. Tischenko had to compose a 22-measure passage for the piano to make up for this, and he edited the work for performance. Soon performed in the West as well as in Russia, the trio was recognized as fully characteristic of Shostakovich’s early style. It has been recorded and represents a valuable addition to the catalog of the composer’s chamber works.

Only about fourteen minutes long, the Trio in C Minor is in one continuous movement that falls into four subsections. Even these, however, are characterized by so many sudden and mercurial shifts of key, tempo, and mood that the trio has been compared to a rhapsody. But Shostakovich unifies this music around the cello’s three-note figure heard at the very beginning; this will recur in many guises throughout. It is altogether characteristic of Shostakovich–even at age 17–that he has left the home key of C minor behind before he has fully presented the opening statement. A lyric second idea is also announced by the cello, and the structure of this trio is very loosely based on sonata form as the music moves through a series of sharply-contrasted sections (one of them titled Prestissimo fantastico) to the energetic close.

Sonata for Violin and Piano, Opus 134 (1968)

In the spring of 1967, Shostakovich wrote his Second Violin Concerto and presented it to David Oistrakh that September on the occasion of the violinist’s sixtieth birthday. Surprised and grateful, Oistrakh had to tell Shostakovich an embarrassing fact: the composer had his dates wrong–Oistrakh had been born in 1908 and so was only 59 that year. Undeterred, Shostakovich then celebrated Oistrakh’s true sixtieth birthday by composing his Violin Sonata for the violinist the following year. Oistrakh gave the first performance, a private one, before the Union of Soviet Composers on January 8, 1969. The public première–with Oistrakh and pianist Sviatoslav Richter–took place in Moscow on May 3, 1969.

The music of Shostakovich’s final period, covering roughly the last decade of his life, forms a very specific chapter in his output. Gone is the nose-thumbing glee of his early music, and gone too are the broad, heroic canvases of his symphonies. In their place comes a new language, inward and often dark. Whether this is the result of bitterness at the Soviet system (as ideological critics will have it) or the result of a long and painful final illness is a matter of ongoing debate, but the fact remains that Shostakovich’s final works bring a sharpening, a refinement, a darkening of his musical language. This music can be very beautiful–as in the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo and the valedictory Viola Sonata–but it can also bring a haunted and bleak musical landscape, particularly in the late chamber music.

Shostakovich’s only violin sonata is a big work, both in duration (it lasts well over half an hour) and intensity–much of it is built on a huge, aggressive sonority. One of the most surprising features of the sonata is Shostakovich’s use of tone-rows, and this is all the more remarkable given the official Soviet condemnation of such procedures. Shostakovich defended his occasional use of tone-rows in his late music, telling an interviewer in 1973: “I did use some element of dodecaphony in these works. Of course, if you take a theory and use solely this theory, I have a very negative attitude toward this kind of approach. But if a composer feels that he needs this or that technique, he can take whatever is available and use it as he sees fit. It is his right to do so. But if you take only one technique, whether it is aleatory or dodecaphonic, and use nothing but that technique, then it is wrong.”

It should be noted that Shostakovich’s use of tone-rows is not nearly so strict as that of the Second Viennese School. Rather than embracing that system, he instead experiments with some of its techniques, and his rows function as basic thematic material which he is then free to treat any way he prefers. The fundamental technique of the Violin Sonata is not to manipulate the rows in the way Webern might have but instead to create musical structures based on continuous variations of a row.

The Violin Sonata is in three massive movements. Piano alone opens the Andante by introducing the movement’s fundamental row, which contains some repetition even on this opening statement. Soon the violin joins this texture, and that opening theme moves between the two instruments. Shostakovich then builds a long music-drama upon variations of the opening theme–some of these episodes are brusque and violent, some melodic, some delicate–and the movement reaches a quiet close on the violin’s eerie tremolo ponticello.

The Allegretto takes a more traditional form: it is a scherzo in (vaguely) ternary form. The distinguishing feature of this movement is its furious energy. The violin stamps out the opening theme–almost more rhythm than theme–and Shostakovich changes meter frequently throughout the aggressive opening minutes of this movement. The “trio” section arrives when the music settles into a steady 3/4 meter and waltzes with a hard-edged energy. Shostakovich delays a literal return of the opening material until late in the movement, which drives to a brutal close.

The finale opens with a grand Largo introduction that leaves us uncertain about the harmonic direction of the music. Out of the silence, the violin–all by itself–picks out the movement’s principal theme pizzicato. This long theme is itself an extended row, and Shostakovich will repeat and vary this material as he proceeds. These variations are sharply contrasted: back comes the fierce energy of the opening movement, but there are extended interludes here of delicacy and a dark beauty. As the movement nears its climax, Shostakovich gives the piano a dramatic passage by itself, which is followed by a cadenza for the violin marked quasi tremolo. Gradually the heated energy of this climax subsides, the music grows more subdued, and Shostakovich concludes with quick reminiscences of the opening two movements. In fact, the sonata returns to the same ponticello passage that brought the first movement to a close, and it is on this icy sound that the music fades into unsettling silence.

String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Opus 110 (1960)

In the summer of 1960 Shostakovich went to Dresden, where he was to write a score for the film Five Days, Five Nights, a joint East German and Soviet production. The devastation of Dresden by Allied bombing in 1945–the event that drove Kurt Vonnegut to write Slaughterhouse Five–was still evident in 1960, and it stunned the composer. He interrupted his work on the film score and in the space of three days (July 12-14) wrote his String Quartet No. 8, dedicated “To the memory of the victims of fascism and war.”

The Eighth Quartet has become the most-frequently performed of Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets, but this intense music appears to have been the product of much more than an encounter with the horrors of war–it sprang straight from its creator’s soul. In it Shostakovich quotes heavily from his own works: there are quotations from the First, Fifth, Tenth, and Eleventh Symphonies, Piano Trio in E Minor, Cello Concerto No. 1, and his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, as well as from several Russian songs. The quartet also uses as its central theme Shostakovich’s musical “signature”: he took the letters DSCH (D for Dmitri and SCH from the first three letters of his last name in its German spelling) and set down their musical equivalents: D-Es (E-flat in German notation)-C-H (B in German notation). That motto–D-E♭-C-B–is the first thing one hears in this quartet, and it permeates the entire work.

Why should a quartet inspired by the destruction of a foreign city (and an “enemy” city, at that) have turned into so personal a piece of music for its composer? Vasily Shirinsky–second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, which gave the première–offered the official Soviet explanation of so dark a work: “In this music, there is a portrait of Shostakovich, the musician, the citizen, and the protector of peaceful and progressive humanity.” But in Testimony, Shostakovich’s much-disputed memoirs, the composer strongly suggests that the quartet is not about fascism but is autobiographical and is about suffering, and he cites his quotation of the song “Languishing in Prison” and of the “Jewish theme” from the Piano Trio as pointing a way toward understanding the quartet.

In her recent biography of the composer, Laurel Fay suggests an even darker autobiographical significance. In the spring of 1960, just before his trip to Dresden, Shostakovich was named head of the Union of Composers of the Soviet Federation, and the Russian government clearly expected such a position to be held by a party member. Under pressure to join the party, the composer reluctantly agreed and then was overwhelmed by regret and guilt. There is evidence that he intended that the Eighth Quartet, a work full of autobiographical meaning, should be his final composition and that he planned to kill himself upon his return to Moscow. Five days after completing the quartet, Shostakovich wrote to a friend: “However much I tried to draft my obligations for the film, I just couldn’t do it. Instead I wrote an ideologically deficient quartet nobody needs. I reflected that if I die some day then it’s hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: ‘Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet.’”

Was the Eighth Quartet to be Shostakovich’s epitaph for himself?

The quartet is extremely compact and focused–its five interconnected movements last twenty minutes. The brooding Largo opens with the DSCH motto in the solo cello, which soon turns into the fanfare from the First Symphony, followed in turn by a quotation from the Fifth Symphony. The movement, somber and beautiful, suddenly explodes into the Allegro molto, in which the first violin’s pounding quarter-notes recall the “battle music” from the composer’s wartime Eighth Symphony. At the climax of this movement comes what Shostakovich called the “Jewish theme,” which seems to shriek out above the sounds of battle. The Allegretto is a ghostly waltz in which the first violin dances high above the other voices. Each of the final two movements is a Largo. The fourth is built on exploding chords that some have compared to gunshots, others to the fatal knock on the door in the middle of the night. At the climax of this movement come the quotations from the prison song and–in the cello’s high register–from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth. The fifth movement returns to the mood and music of the first. The DSCH motto enters fugally and many of the quartet’s earlier themes are recalled before the music closes very quietly on a chord marked morendo.

SOME NOTES: The film for which Shostakovich was to write the score that summer was a typical product of Cold War propaganda. A joint work by Russian and East German filmmakers, Five Days, Five Nights told the politically-correct confabulation that heroic Russian troops had entered Dresden in February 1945 and helped preserve the city’s artistic treasures from Allied bombing (in fact, Russian troops were nowhere near Dresden during the bombing). Shostakovich’s score for the film is unremarkable except that it too makes use of quotations: in the course of the music, the theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony gradually breaks in on Shostakovich’s own music. And for the record: on September 14, 1960–two months after composing the Eighth Quartet–Shostakovich officially became a member of the Communist Party.

Seven Verses of Alexander Blok, Opus 127 (1967)

In May 1966 Shostakovich–then only 59 years old–suffered a heart attack. He spent two months in the hospital and a further month in a sanatorium before being sent home to make a slow and painful recovery. Back in his Moscow apartment, Shostakovich’s spirits were further dampened by writer’s block: he found himself unable to work, and–depressed–he reflected moodily on his entire career. It was not until mid-winter that he was able to gather his creative energies and resume work. Perhaps it is not surprising under these conditions that the composer should turn to an author he loved and write for performers he loved. The author was Russian poet Alexander Blok (1880-1921), who had begun as a mystic and a symbolist but then became an idealistic supporter of the communist revolution; as a young music student in the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Shostakovich had taken delight in Blok’s poetry. The music itself grew out of a request by cellist Mistislav Rostropovich for a series of brief works for cello and soprano that he might perform with his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya. Shostakovich made a setting of Blok’s Ophelia’s Song for this combination, then found that he needed more instruments, so he added violin and piano, creating a suite of songs for soprano and piano trio. Shostakovich wrote the violin part with his longtime friend David Oistrakh in mind, and he wrote the piano part for himself, deliberately keeping its difficulties within the range of his own diminished capacities. With his energies revived, Shostakovich quickly completed the work, which he called Seven Verses of Alexander Blok, on February 2, 1967.

For his texts, Shostakovich turned not to the poems Blok had written in support of the revolution but to his early poetry, written around the age of twenty, which has an almost surrealistic intensity. The vocal part is quite varied, ranging from intimate poetry that is virtually whispered to lines that are dramatically declaimed at a dynamic not usually encountered in chamber music. Similarly, Shostakovich deploys his instruments in unusual ways. The Seven Verses may nominally be scored for soprano and piano trio, but Shostakovich uses all of these performers only in the final song; up to that point, he accompanies the soprano with either a single instrument (first three songs) or with only two (next three).

The subjects of these poems are varied, and listeners should not expect a unity or progression across the seven songs, which range from nightmare horror through loving calm and on to intense longing. The external world–whether it is St. Petersburg at night, a violent storm, or the horrifying bird of doom–is depicted surrealistically here. Many of these poems are set at night and are presented as dream-sequences in which the world around the poet becomes only a symbol of his internal consciousness.

A brief overview: Ophelia’s Song, the original core of the set, is scored for soprano and cello, and its spare atmosphere tells of Ophelia left behind in Denmark. The horrifying Gamayun, with hammered piano accompaniment, was inspired by Vasnetzov’s painting of the prophetic bird bearing its message of imminent doom as its beautiful face drips blood. By sharp contrast, We Were Together is a love song, gently accompanied by the violin, which scurries ahead and eventually vanishes on fragments of the melodic line. Right at the center of the set lies its most beautiful song, The City Is Asleep, which is accompanied by piano and cello. The wonderful cello part is double-stopped throughout, and Shostakovich reminds the cellist four times to play espressivo. The final three songs are performed without pauses between them. The Tempest is appropriately violent, with bravura parts for violin and piano and a brilliant vocal line. Secret Signs, the most mysterious of the songs, is accompanied by muted strings; the soprano’s part is almost whispered at many places here. The strings lead directly into the concluding Music, in which all four performers finally participate together. Yet the mood here remains generally restrained, and at the end the soprano drops out and leaves the final word to a long (and enigmatic) instrumental postlude.

The première of Seven Verses of Alexander Blok took place in Moscow on October 23, 1967, but Shostakovich–still frail–was unable to participate, and he stayed home and listened to the performance on the radio. Vishnevskaya (to whom these songs are dedicated), Oistrakh, and Rostropovich were the performers on that occasion, joined by Shostakovich’s longtime friend Moisey Vainberg as pianist. The audience liked the music so much that the entire work had to be repeated.