If ever we needed evidence that art and politics can make for a lethal mix, the life of Dmitri Shostakovich provides it. A son of the Russian Revolution, he started off as a true believer. But in his early twenties, he got caught up in the Stalinist nightmare, apparently surviving the purges only because Stalin liked his “politically correct” music for propaganda films.
In January 1936 an article appeared in Pravda severely criticizing Shostakovich’s highly successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. Immediately, upon the order of the government, the opera was withdrawn from the stage, and performances of all of the composer’s music were banned. For the first of many times, Shostakovich was cast into Soviet limbo, his music unperformed, his livelihood taken, and his very life in jeopardy. In later years he recalled that he was so certain of being arrested that he used to sleep with his suitcase packed near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up, they would not disturb the rest of the family.
World War II brought an upsurge of patriotism, with the horrors of the '30s temporarily forgotten. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, composed and premiered in Leningrad during the Nazi siege of the city, cemented his reputation as the Soviet Union’s foremost composer and provided a degree of political and personal safety. But in 1948 came a resurgence of purges, suppression, and disappearances, orchestrated by the cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov, whose decrees permitted only cheerful, uplifting, and folksy art. With Stalin’s death in 1953, however, things began to look up; and later in the decade, when Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program was underway, Shostakovich felt freer to express himself without fear of retribution. Throughout this political roller coaster, he maintained his artistic integrity by continuing to compose “for the drawer.”
Few musicians in the last century inspired more composers to write for them than did cellist and conductor Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich. A longtime friend of Shostakovich, with whom he frequently performed around the Soviet Union, Rostropovich had long hoped that the composer would write a cello concerto for him. He recalled that when he raised the question of a commission with Shostakovich’s wife, she answered “Slava, if you want Dmitry to write something for you, the only recipe I can give you is this – never ask him or talk to him about it.” True to form, in 1959, the composer surprised his friend with the Cello Concerto in E-flat.
Although the times may have been calmer, the Concerto opens with a grim four-note theme on the cello that dominates the movement and recurs throughout the work. Not only is there the inherent musical tension in the chromatic theme but also in the cello part, which begins in the low register, gradually ratchets higher and higher, transforming the theme into a shriek. The second theme offers less contrast than one might expect in a sonata form, but at least it attenuates the anger; the composer, however, couldn’t resist appending his grim motto.
The lyrical second movement opens with a plaintive theme based on a Jewish folksong. It is one of Shostakovich’s most romantic movements and leads into a huge cadenza that the composer notated as a separate movement. In it, the grim four-note motive from the opening movement reappears, and the tempo slowly increases until the cadenza transitions into the Allegro finale.
It is characteristic of many of the finales of Shostakovich’s symphonies and concertos to have a playful and often satiric bite. Stalin may have been dead and even discredited, but Shostakovich could not let him off that easily. Hidden in the last movement is a parody of one of the dictator’s favorite sentimental ditties, Suliko, the same one the composer parodied in the satirical cantata Rayok (The Peep Show), lampooning Zhdanov’s and his followers’ decrees. The cantata, probably composed in stages between 1947 and 1967, remained hidden “in the drawer” until after the composer’s death. Shostakovich also brings back and prominently features the four-note motto, concluding with a reprise of the opening of the Concerto. If there is any personal or political significance or symbolism associated with it, none has been determined with any certainty.
Instrumentation: 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 1 Horn, Timpani, Celesta, Strings, and Solo Cello.
The Dayton Philharmonic’s most recent performance was in October 1986 with Charles Wendelken-Wilson conducting. The soloist’s name is missing from our records.