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8.553297 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the son of an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As a pianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.
Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol, was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Golden Age was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism. The first of these, To October, was written in response to a commission from the state authorities and was intended to mark the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. The Third Symphony , completed in 1929, marked another celebration of the regime and was subtitled The First of May .
In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District , based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, first performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title Katerina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony , described, in terms to which Shostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time.
In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet. In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev, its broadcast performance in the devastated city to which it is dedicated and subsequent performances in allied countries had, as the authorities had intended, a strong effect on moral in Leningrad and in Russia, and aroused emotions of patriotic sympathy abroad.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now with Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social and practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of his compositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961.
In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title Katerina Ismailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.
The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity and lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and Küchelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9th August.
The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg had been fired on by troops, Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism.
The testimony of others and a recent scholarly survey of the life and work of Shostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough. Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice of artistic integrity.
The first of the two Piano Trios of Shostakovich was written in 1923 and dedicated to Tanya Glivenko. The period was a difficult one. His father had died in 1922 and Shostakovich was obliged to support his mother and sisters by working as a cinema pianist. In 1923 he had spent some time in a sanatorium at Koreiz in the Crimea in an attempt to recuperate from tuberculosis. There he had met Tanya Glivenko, the daughter of a Moscow philologist and two weeks younger than him. Glazunov, director of the St Petersburg Conservatoire, had arranged for Shostakovich to stay in the sanatorium, while Tanya Glivenko's father held an official position in the control of rest-houses of this kind and had arranged for his two daughters to spend a summer holiday there. The relationship, with all the intensity of first love, continued in the following years, although they were separated, with Shostakovich in Leningrad and Tanya Glivenko in Moscow. Nevertheless they were able to meet occasionally in Moscow and in 1925 to spend a summer together. In 1929 she married and even after this there still seemed a possibility that she would leave her husband to live with Shostakovich, in spite of his developing relationship with Nina Vasilyevna Varzar, whom he married soon after the birth of Tanya's first child.
The Piano Trio No.1 in C minor, Opus 8, is remarkable enough, as the composition of a sixteen-year-old student. It is a work of romantic intensity, cast in a musical language that is recognisably that of Shostakovich. In 1924 he contemplated moving from Leningrad to the Moscow Conservatoire and offered the Piano Trio as the obligatory sonata-form movement for entrance, allowing Myaskovsky to accept him with alacrity as a potential student in his free composition class. When the work was first written he had rehearsed it in the cinema, as accompaniment to a film, with the violinist Venyamin Sher and the cellist Grigori Pekker. The intervention of his mother, always solicitous, prevented his removal to Moscow and in the event he continued his composition studies in St Petersburg, where Rimsky-Korsakov's son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg, while acknowledging Shostakovich's ability, nevertheless took exception to the element of the grotesque that was becoming a feature of his j music. The work opens with a descending melodic line over an ostinato: accompaniment of a repeated note. The music increases in intensity, with something of that element of the grotesque to which Steinberg took exception, before the return of the opening theme and a passage of greater energy, initiated by the cello. A romantic secondary theme is introduced by the string instruments, over a predominantly descending accompaniment from the piano, leading to brief hints of the idiom of Rachmaninov, a composer whose work Shostakovich did not like. The material is developed in a mood of greater excitement, until, after an abrupt pause, the opening theme returns in recapitulation.
The Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, Opus 67, is a work of a very different kind. Shostakovich wrote it in 1944, dedicating it to the memory of his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died suddenly, at the age of 41, of a heart-attack, when Shostakovich was expecting his return to take up a position at the Moscow Conservatoire. The two had been close friends since 1927 and Sollertinsky had proved a stimulating companion, with his wide cultural knowledge and wit, and the two had been together in Moscow in the last months of 1943, at a time when Shostakovich was already at work on the piano trio. The work was completed at the composers' rest-house at Ivanovo on 13th August, while the Second String Quartet was also in progress. The first movement of the Piano Trio opens in elegiac mood, but proceeds to apparent reminiscences of a more cheerful kind, with a theme that re-appears in the Second String Quartet. The second movement is energetic, a peasant dance, with a waltz trio section. It is followed by a sombre passacaglia, introduced by solemn piano chords. The violin joins the lament, followed by the cello, in music of great intensity, with a final Mahlerian resonance, a reminder that is was through Sollertinsky that Shostakovich had come to know the work of Mahler. The last movement, a Jewish dance of death, had its origin in the accounts of wanton cruelty exercised at Treblinka and other concentration camps, where 55 guards had forced Jewish victims to dance by their own graves, before they were killed. This is the first example of the composer's fascination with Jewish music both for its own sake and through his own identification with the victims of persecution. Here the dance ends in death, and a final note of mourning.
The seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok, Opus 127, were written at the request of Mstislav Rostropovich, who had asked his friend Shostakovich for vocalises for his wife, Galina Visnevskaya, and himself. The work was written and first performed in 1967, although during a spell in hospital after a heart-attack the previous year, the composer had been giving thought to the poems by Blok. The composer Venyamin Basner, in an interview with the cellist Elizabeth Wilson, a pupil of Rostropovich and author of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, based on the reminiscences of his friends and contemporaries, recalls a visit to the composer soon after the completion of the songs, when Shostakovich, who had been suffering from a creative block since his recent illness, confided that he had found the necessary release in a bottle of brandy that his wife Irina had failed to hide from him.
The first of the seven Romances, the elegiac Ophelia's Song, is scored, as Rostropovich had intended, for soprano and cello, but Shostakovich found it necessary to introduce the piano when he came to the declamatory second song, Hamayun, the Prophetic Bird, a poem based on a painting by Vasnetsov in which the bird, too weak to raise its wings, foretells conquest, death and disaster. The violin introduces and accompanies We were together..., recalling the meeting of lovers, together in the night, as the violin sang and touched the heart. The fourth song, The city sleeps, is night-music, the first gleam of St Petersburg dawn, over the Neva, reflecting the sadness of life. The instruments conjure up a storm for the fifth poem, Storm, as the wind roars outside in the night and the poet battles through the rain and cold to join with those that have no shelter. The cello now introduces the sombre Mysterious signs, as the poet, in his heavy dreams, sees the coming of war. The piano joins the other two accompanying instruments in the final Music, in which, in the darkness of night, there is music with God, with a final impassioned prayer to the Queen of Creation to receive, through blood, suffering and death, the poet's own cup of suffering.
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