The Kennedy Center

Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Richard Freed

Shostakovich composed his First Cello Concerto in 1959 for Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the premiere on October 4 of that year, with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (today's St. Petersburg Philharmonic) conducted by Evgeny Mravinsky. Five weeks later (November 8, 1959) Mr. Rostropovich made his American début in the Concerto's U.S. premiere, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and recorded it during that engagement. On December 12, 1965, he played the solo part in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of the work, in a Pension Fund concert with Anshel Brusilow conducting. Yo-Yo Ma was the soloist in the NSO's most recent performance of the Concerto, on November 11, 2005, with Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducting.

In addition to the solo cello, the score calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, horn, timpani, celesta, and strings. Duration, 28 minutes.

This concerto was one of the earliest such works composed for the late Mstislav Rostropovich, who is remembered in Washington, of course as our Slava, the beloved and respected music director of the National Symphony Orchestra for the years 1977-1994 and the orchestra's laureate conductor from 1994 until his death last April, a month after his eightieth birthday. Both of Shostakovich's concertos and a sonata were composed for him, as earlier Prokofiev had composed his Sinfonia concertante and a sonata for him, and over the years such the names of such composers as Witold Lutoslawski, Henri Dutilleux, Leonard Bernstein, Walter Piston, Benjamin Britten and Sofia Gubaidulina were added to the very substantial list. It is a measure of Slava's enormous contributions to the musical life of his time, and in particular to the growth of his own instrument's the repertoire, that so many of the works he brought into being have been taken up by younger generations of cellists and found permanent places in the active repertory worldwide. In this respect, none has found a more secure place or inspired greater enthusiasm on the part of cellists and their audiences alike than this remarkable concerto by Shostakovich. Heinrich Schiff, our soloist in the present concerts, has championed the two Shostakovich concertos for decades, and some twenty-two years ago recorded both of them with the composer's son, Maxim Shostakovich, conducting.

In this work's relationship with the rest of Shostakovich's concert works, this concerto may be said to share certain common features with the Elgar Cello Concerto, a work to be performed in next week's concerts. First of all, both are not only substantial works, but profound as well, filled with the respective composers' personal feelings; second, both Elgar and Shostakovich in these concertos expressed their feelings not only with a conspicuous sense of urgency but with a conciseness not always found in their other major works for orchestra (even though each of these concertos is laid out in four movements instead of the usual three). Elgar's two symphonies are very large-scaled works, and so are most of Shostakovich's, but the substance of these concertos did not allow for sprawl: in this concerto, as in his string quartets, the Russian master seemed to find an intensity of emotional focus that simply demanded the most unembellished directness.

Various commentators in the composer's own country explained that the unusual form of the First Cello Concerto was dictated by the work's "philosophical"content. Of the four movements, the last three are interlinked, the penultimate one being actually an extended cadenza. A further unifying factor is the return of the first movement's principal theme in the finale, not in the context of a fleeting recollection, but in a conspicuously important role—and in a character quite different from the one assigned to it in the earlier movement. This theme, it has been suggested, represents the composer himself, facing "the conflicts and challenges of creative life in a dynamic society."

The conductor Kiril Kondrashin, who was regarded as an especially authoritative interpreter of Shostakovich's music, was one of the first to offer an analysis of this work, which he described as "an active triumph for the ultimate struggle of [the composer's] idea."Both Kondrashin and Lev Ginsburg, the eminent writer on the cello and its literature (a contemporary of Shostakovich, not related to the eponymous present-day musicologist and critic), called attention to the "first person"significance of the opening movement's theme, which, in Ginsburg's words, "begins with a question that is frequently repeated."Both Ginsburg and Kondrashin noted also the specifically Russian character of the second theme, and of the second movement as a whole.

In a much earlier and more familiar Russian work, the Symphony No. 4 of Tchaikovsky, the opening motif recurs startlingly in the finale, a movement in which that autobiographical symphony's hero attempts to shake off his fatalistic sadness amid the sounds of a popular festival. Kondrashin drew a certain programmatic parallel with the concluding movement of this concerto. "The turbulent finale," he suggested, "in which the listener seems to hear the echo of accordions and the gay sounds of a folk festival, is far from constituting a mere formal rounding-off of the cycle. Here too we feel the presence of antagonistic forces, so that the main theme of the coda seems to be born out of a struggle for its own existence."

Ginsburg too observed that this final section "bears a vivid, life-asserting character, developed out of the intensely dramatic content of the entire work; it is an affirmation of life, triumph in the struggle for fulfillment."

In orchestrating the Concerto, Shostakovich included only one brass instrument, a single horn, to which he assigned an unusually prominent role in portions of the work. At various points in the two outer movements the horn seems to be in the position of antagonist to the cello, while at others it is the cello's boon companion, either paving the way for the true soloist's statement or promptly reaffirming it. Toward the end of the first movement the horn enters with conspicuous assertiveness in a persistent ostinato figure which serves to underscore the nervous energy of the piece. When the second movement opens, it is the horn again that is heard in its initial phrases, setting the lyric mood of this section and introducing the material that is taken up by the cello. About midway into the finale the horn returns, tentatively at first in a simple counter-melody and then more assertively again in a slightly modified form of the spiky four-note theme which the cello introduced in the first movement and proclaims again in the last.