The Kennedy Center

Piano Trio No. 1

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Paul Horsley

The teenaged Shostakovich must have been a sight to behold: gangly and gregarious, opinionated and a bit of a prankster, with large, widely spaced eyes peering from behind outlandish eyeglasses. But when it came to his studies he was dead-serious. Even as a 13-year-old first-year student at Petrograd Conservatory he was ambitious, curious and an extraordinary pianist. At 15 he performed Beethoven's gigantic "Hammerklavier" for his piano class, with accuracy and musicality that astonished. By 16 he was a top student in Maximilian Steinberg's composition studio. Among his early works were piano pieces, chamber music and a Scherzo in F-sharp Minor for Orchestra, Op. 1.

But the twin ogres of heartache and ill-health that were to follow him throughout his life also reared their heads early on. His father died in his 40s when Dmitri was only 15 -- a huge emotional and financial blow to the family -- and early the next year Dmitri himself fell victim to tuberculosis, for which he was sent to a Crimean spa at Gaspra to recuperate.

There on the gorgeous Black Sea coast he grew strong and healthy, and by the end of the summer of 1923 he had fallen in love with a girl his age who was vacationing there. Thus it was for the young Tatyana Glivenko, a member of a well-placed Moscow family, that Shostakovich composed his remarkable Piano Trio No. 1 that autumn, pilfering a theme from an abandoned earlier piano piece. (Like Beethoven before him, Shostakovich used the simpler textures of piano and chamber music to learn structure before tackling his First Symphony, completed in 1925.) "It's dedicated to you, if you've no objections," he wrote to Tatyana, for whom he nurtured an affection that lasted several years. The Trio was first performed later that year at the Petrograd Conservatory, with Shostakovich at the keyboard joined by fellow students. (The autograph manuscript remains missing, and because the extant piano part is missing 22 bars toward the end, they had to be recreated by Shostakovich's pupil, Boris Tishchenko.) The following spring the composer presented the Trio again as part of his composition exam at the Moscow Conservatory, with surprising results. "What he has just played will count as his Sonata Form exam," said faculty member Nikolai Miaskovsky to his flustered colleagues.

Surprising indeed, considering that the single-movement Trio (originally titled "Poem for Violin, Violoncello and Fortepiano") appears at first glance to be a freeform fantasy with nods to Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov and 20th-century modernists. Yet a closer examination reveals a tight structure with clear nods to sonata form: contrasting initial themes (beginning with the mournful Andante), a Prestissimo fantastico development section leading to a vigorous climax, a recapitulation of opening material (return to Andante themes), and even a Coda: Allegro. This unassuming little piece stands out for its strikingly original themes and compositional solutions that reveal a 17-year-old already in complete mastery of harmony, counterpoint and form.