Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. The Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op.35, was composed between March 6 and July 20, 1933. Shostakovich played the solo piano part in the premiere on October 15, 1933, in Leningrad, with trumpeter Alexander Schmidt and the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Fritz Stiedry.
The score of the Piano Concerto No. 1 calls for piano, trumpet, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 22 minutes long.
Like other Russian composers of the 20th century—Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev—Dmitri Shostakovich posed a double threat as a concert pianist. He first studied the instrument with his mother at age 9. Later, at Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) Conservatory, he completed the piano course under the renowned Leonid Nikolayev. According to his friend Lydia Zhukova, Shostakovich “was a wonderful pianist, with strong hands and his own precise and somewhat dry manner of playing.” Other observers noted that he liked to treat the piano as a percussion instrument, and without sentimentality.
In the 1920s, Shostakovich played regularly as a piano accompanist for silent films, in the process becoming well acquainted with cinema and improvisation. So highly did the Conservatory faculty think of his piano skills that he was selected as a member of the Soviet team to compete in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1927. Shostakovich’s failure to distinguish himself there, however, was a source of considerable embarrassment and led him to abandon his youthful dream of assuming the double role of keyboard virtuoso and composer. As time went on, he focused increasingly on composition, appearing as a pianist for the most part only when playing his own music. He continued to perform as a pianist publicly into his seventh decade and recorded many of his own piano compositions, including the two piano concertos.
His output for the instrument was sporadic but impressive in a variety of genres. Among the solo works are numerous incidental pieces, a set of 24 preludes, two piano sonatas, and a set of 24 preludes and fugues—a musical dialogue with Bach that is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the modern keyboard literature. For chamber ensemble he wrote two trios (for violin, cello, and piano), a piano quintet, sonatas for violin and cello with piano, and a Concertino for Two Pianos. The piano also takes a prominent role in the First, Fifth, and Seventh symphonies.
But the crowning achievement of Shostakovich’s work for the piano are the two piano concertos, composed 24 years apart and as different in personality as vodka and champagne. Both have firmly entered the concerto repertoire and have been recorded by an impressive group of soloists.
When Dmitri Shostakovich began composing what eventually became his First Piano Concerto in early March 1933, he was riding high. Not yet 30, he had already achieved international acclaim for his First Symphony, completed at age 19. Just a few months before, in December 1932, he had finished an ambitious new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, for which he (and many others) had high hopes. True, his uncompromisingly avant-garde opera The Nose had run into severe problems with Soviet ideological censorship almost immediately after its 1930 premiere, an ominous sign of things to come. But in 1933, Soviet composers still enjoyed a certain degree of creative independence from the Communist government, now dominated by the despotic Joseph Stalin. Still a few years away were the horrors of the Stalinist purges of artists and intellectuals that would claim some of Shostakovich’s close friends. With marriage to his longtime sweetheart Nina Varzar on May 13, 1932, Shostakovich’s personal life had recently become more tranquil and (for the most part) happier.
Shostakovich’s return to the piano in 1932-33, five years after the 1927 solo cycle Aphorisms, can be seen as a sort of interlude. Perhaps he was seeking some respite from the difficult collaborative work required for the music he had been producing for theater, ballet, film, and opera. He wrote the Opus 34 Preludes and the Opus 35 Piano Concerto simultaneously as vehicles for his return to a more active performing career. Sophia Khentova speculates that Shostakovich was seeking to “clear his mind” and “return to the present” after finishing Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk. This may account for the concerto’s topical, light, humorous, satirical, and eclectic personality, at moments reminiscent of a silent movie chase scene or a circus sideshow, and much simpler in its musical language than the extremely dissonant, atonal score for The Nose.
Initially, Shostakovich had considered writing a trumpet concerto for the Leningrad Philharmonic trumpeter Alexander Schmidt. But he found the technical challenges daunting, and so added a piano to create a double concerto for trumpet and piano. Eventually the piano took precedence, with the trumpet playing a prominent but secondary role. The spare orchestration is quite unusual for Shostakovich when compared to his previous two symphonies, written for large orchestra with chorus, and especially to the gigantic Fourth Symphony that came only three years later. The small scale and frankly ironic intentions of the First Piano Concerto also depart markedly from—even poke fun at—the tradition of the blockbuster Russian romantic piano concerto handed down by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.
Shostakovich’s models here are an entirely different cast of characters, all modernists: Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, Paul Hindemith. The idea for the unusual choice of instruments may have been inspired in part by Stravinsky’s 1924 Concerto for Piano and Winds, which Shostakovich came to know in 1928. One also senses a certain kinship (particularly in the slow movement) with Ravel’s 1932 G major piano concerto, an equally sunny and playful work without pretensions to profundity. And the use of varied musical material, from high to low, can be traced to Shostakovich’s passionate love for the music of Gustav Mahler. As Mahler often does, Shostakovich here quotes from various sources, with intent of parody: Haydn’s D major piano sonata, Beethoven’s rondo “Rage over a lost penny,” a street song from Odessa. Echoes from jazz and the music hall also resound in what is an unabashed celebration of a hodge-podge of popular and classical styles.
For all of its irreverence, the First Piano Concerto observes many of the rules of the genre. The opening movement, firmly in C minor, uses traditional sonata-form structure, contrasting a reflective first theme (announced at the outset by the almost unaccompanied piano soloist) with a dance-like second one. A slow waltz (sometimes called a waltz-Boston) dominates the second movement, in ABA form; the return of the lovely main theme in the muted trumpet is a stroke of simple genius. After a tiny third movement (opening with an extended piano solo passage) that serves as little more than an interlude, the rambunctious fourth movement somersaults home to C minor.
The piano cadenza that appears just before the end of the finale was added at the urging of pianist Lev Oborin, who insisted that a piano concerto would be incomplete without one. So Shostakovich obliged, using for the cadenza the theme of Beethoven’s prankish Rondo a capriccio in G, Opus 129, “Rage over a lost penny.” The following coda proceeds to an affirmative conclusion in C major, propelled by the trumpet’s comically insistent martial summons.
Shostakovich’s performance of the solo part at the premiere in Leningrad was greeted with enormous enthusiasm and rapturous reviews. Just as he had hoped, the new Concerto resuscitated his piano career and brought him engagements to play it all over the USSR. Oborin soon learned the piece and became one of its most active champions.
Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Cineaste, and Opera News, and he has written program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Metropolitan Opera.