The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Richard Freed

Shostakovich composed his First Concerto between March and July of 1933, and played the solo part in the premiere, with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fritz Stiedry, on October 15 of that year. When Hans Kindler conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of this work, on February 23, 1947, his soloist was Eugene List, who had given the U.S. premiere with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, when he was 16 years old; in the NSO's most recent performance of the Concerto, on May 20, 2003, Sam Post was the pianist, Steven Hendrickson was the trumpeter, and Emil de Cou conducted.

The instrumentation for this work is given in its title. Duration, 21 minutes.

By the time Shostakovich introduced this work, just three weeks after his 27th birthday, he was a solidly established composer with an international reputation. He had behind him not only his brilliant First Symphony, which had brought him high-level recognition before he was out of his teens, but two more symphonies (both with patriotic choral finales), two ballets, several film scores and sets of incidental music for the stage, and the satirical opera The Nose. He had in fact completed his second opera, the more ambitious Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which would have its premiere in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was called at that time) in January 1934--and would, despite its huge success both there and in Moscow, precipitate his first major run-in with Stalin two years later. In the fall of 1933, though, Shostakovich was in good standing with the political authorities, having weathered a relatively mild rebuke four years earlier for his Tahiti Trot, a witty and still rather remarkable orchestration of the song "Tea for Two," from Vincent Youmans's musical comedy No, No, Nanette.

The First Concerto is not far removed from the burlesque character of that piece. It is definitely not burdened with profound gestures, but is a brilliant jeu d'esprit, with some quasi-elegiac passages in the slow movement but far more conspicuous parodistic episodes in the outer ones, exuding vivacity and a degree of good-natured nose-thumbing. In some respects the music reminds us that it is roughly contemporaneous with Francis Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos, a work infused with the spirit of popular entertainment and the music hall. While the Shostakovich Concerto is not an outright double concerto, the trumpet is not merely part of the orchestral color: it is, rather, a largely independent voice brought in for frequent dialogue with the piano, or for the sort of comments on the proceedings that go back to the role of the chorus in both the comedies and the tragedies of the ancient Greek theater. In his own performances of the work the composer, as pianist, had the trumpeter in solo position with him, rather than back in the latter's accustomed orchestral seat, and this practice is observed in the present concerts.

The Polish composer and pianist Sigismund Stojowski once remarked of Saint-Saëns's Fourth Piano Concerto that "it begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach." Shostakovich's Op. 35 might be said to begin and end with Beethoven, and there are numerous self-quotations and other allusions along the way. Throughout his creative life Shostakovich quoted and paraphrased from his own works and those of other composers. There are citations of Rossini and Wagner in the last of his fifteen symphonies, a reference to Lehár's Merry Widow in the Seventh, quotations from folk songs in other symphonies, and from his symphonies in his string quartets. In the present concerto there are two references to Beethoven, one to a Haydn keyboard sonata, and echoes, or near-echoes of several of Shostakovich's works that had just preceded this one: the incidental music for Hamlet (Op. 32, for the stage, not the much later film score, Op. 116), the circus sketch Allegedly Murdered (Op. 31), and the 24 Preludes for piano (Op. 24), which he had completed only days before starting work on the Concerto.

After a pithy opening gesture by the piano and trumpet, the piano introduces the first theme, apparently variant on the opening of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in F minor (the "Appassionata"). The second theme is more animated , and the music becomes more and more drivingt, until it suddenly just stops, and the movement ends with a reprise of the original statement of the opening theme.

The slow movement is characterized by a relaxation of energy and abandonment of sarcastic asides in favor of a gentle melancholy and a degree of introspection. Muted strings set the scene; the piano is given a simple, austere line, and the trumpet is muted when it comes in after the brief climax, setting a wistfully elegiac tone for the remainder of the movement.

Although this concerto comprises four movements instead of the usual three, the third is little more than an introduction to the fourth. The finale itself is a giddy tumut of familiar-sounding tunes and rapidly alternating rhythms. Here the trumpet is given a status close to full partnership, and several of the episodes evoke a raucous music hall. When Shostakovich thought he had completed the score, he was reminded that he needed a cadenza for the finale, and his inspired response was a wild paraphrase on Beethoven's Rondo a capriccio in G major, the piece known as "The Rage over a Lost Penny." Following that, all the accumulated energy is released in a driving conclusion.