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Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57

About the Work

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quick Look Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players perform Shostakovich & Beethoven Sun., Oct. 5, 2008, 2:00 PM
© Paul Horsley


If the Op. 8 Trio represents the first bloom of Shostakovich's early mastery of chamber music, his subtle Piano Quintet is a product of his ripe maturity -- despite having been composed only 17 years afterward. It appeared in the wake of the notorious opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which despite being a crowning achievement came under severe attack from the Communist Party hardliners, most notably in a 1936 article in Pravda denouncing it for excessive modernism. The composer's Fifth Symphony of 1937, announced as "the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism," became a sort of musical penance for the opera.

Under Stalin's simplistic Party line, Soviet art was to be clear, direct, wholesome and capable of inspiring the unwashed and the unschooled. The penance was accepted, and for the time being Shostakovich was back in favor, both with the Party and with the public. (The early adulation for the Fifth has continued to this day, worldwide.) Likewise the very different Sixth Symphony of 1939 was not just a public success but was praised by one Soviet critic as representing even further progress on the part of the composer in freeing himself of "formalist" tendencies.

But if many were puzzled by the Sixth Symphony's peculiar structure and subdued lyricism, nearly everyone loved the Piano Quintet written in summer 1940, which managed to be both rigorous and accessible. Shostakovich "wrote himself into" the quintet, he confided to his friend Isaak Glikman, so that when Soviet ensembles toured with the piece they would be obliged to take him along. The trick worked: Shostakovich gained permission for plenty of travel, both inside and outside the Soviet Union, with the Beethoven and Glazunov String Quartets.

The piece is written in a clear, emphatic style but with enough of Shostakovich's biting harmonic language that one Party hardliner complained in print of its "stilted, singular new sounds resulting from abstract formal quests." (I guess you can't please everybody.) The Beethoven Quartet played the premiere in Moscow in November 1940, with the composer at the piano. The public success was an embarrassment, as the Party still considered chamber music a bourgeois activity. Nevertheless, the piece won a Category One award in the 1940 Stalin Prizes.

The Lento Prelude squarely establishes the key of G minor, and the Adagio Fugue that follows, based on a motivic idea from the Prelude, underscores the work's debt to Classical forms. Here, as throughout, the piano is displayed with prominence -- despite the fact that Shostakovich had joked with his string colleagues players that he made their parts harder than his. The mood of the third movement (Scherzo: Allegretto) has been described as loutish and bucolic by more than one commentator, which some believe was part of Shostakovich's "code language" to satirize Stalin and his rough henchmen. The broadly comic manner in which the composer sprinkles "wrong notes" throughout would become one of his signature means of biting satire. The sad, lyrical Lento is a highly personal expression of the remote loneliness of the Soviet artist, and most likely a personal moment from the composer's own heart. The Quintet concludes with an effective Allegretto Finale, full of dense contrapuntal textures and propulsive climaxes.