Piano Concerto No. 2
Dmitry Shostakovich was the last of the great composers who
could be called both traditionalist and modern, and the first of the Russian
composers who emerged because of, rather than despite, the Soviet regime. Unlike
his compatriots Prokofiev and Stravinsky, both educated in Tsarist Russia,
Shostakovich worked entirely under the influence of the communist government,
and he struggled all his career with his genuine wish to create art for the
state and the state's inability to accept any art it did not understand.
He studied with Glazunov at the Petrograd Conservatory and
made his first mark in the musical world with his diploma work, the Symphony No.
1, in 1926. His early style could embrace the Soviet demand for social realism
— symphonies two and three were written in honor of revolutionary events —but
it was also brashly energetic, experimental, and full of sardonic humor, as in
his satiric operas The Nose (1930) and Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk
Unfortunately, Stalin's regime was growing more rigid each
year, and in 1936 Shostakovich was attacked for the previously successful Lady
Macbeth due to its "petty bourgeois sensationalism." The era of artistic
repression had begun. Shostakovich managed to keep the censors at bay even while
striving for independence, but his style evolved into more introverted
melancholy and nationalistic fervor during this period. His fifth symphony
(1937), subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism," is seen by
most critics as a subtle satire of the politburo's requirements in its
grandiose manner and the forced rejoicing of the final movement.
Shostakovich gained international celebrity for his seventh
symphony (1941), written in Leningrad while the city was under siege by the
Germans, but his ninth symphony (1944) failed to please the Soviets by virtue of
being light and joyous when the state wanted a monumental work in honor of
Russian war victories; by 1948 he was condemned by the government again, along
with Prokofiev and other prominent musicians, for "formalist perversions."
He wrote mostly works glorifying Russia's history until Stalin's death in
1953, when the artistic freeze began to thaw.
His first venture back into provocative composition came in
1962 with the Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar"), based on poems by poet Yevgeny
Yevtushenko about the Russian oppression of the Jews. In 1966 he was diagnosed
with a serious heart condition, and his work evolved into a more sparsely
scored, darker style, with the subject of death prominent. His Symphony No. 14
(1969) is a song-cycle on mortality, dissonant and showing little regard for the
old Soviet social realism. He died in August 1975 at age 69, eulogized in the
USSR for his "socialist humanism" and in the West for his fearless
Shostakovich wrote his second piano concerto in 1957 as a
birthday gift for his 19-year-old son Maxim, a pianist. The piece is full of a
light-hearted energy that may owe as much to the composer's relief at the
demise of Stalin as to his cheerful wishes for his son. The eager, brilliant
tone and brisk tempos coupled with repeated notes similar to a bugle's call in
the first and third movements are likely the reason for the Disney artists
having chosen to use excerpts from this concerto in the "Steadfast Tin Soldier"
segment of the recent movie Fantasia 2000. The piece avoids traditional
virtuosity, perhaps to best display Maxim's particular talents, and downplays
the opposition of soloist and orchestra in favor of constantly passing theme and
variation between both.
Both the first and third Allegro movements have a
similar structure, each contrasting bright, jaunty tunes against a sort of
military tattoo complete with snare drum. The first movement contains fiery
lines as well, in an ominous theme of octaves marching up and down the keyboard,
and at the broad, dramatic moment when the full orchestra triumphantly roars the
main melody. Shostakovich reins such moments back in, however, to let the piano
restate the theme lightly, almost delicately, in an extended solo. All themes
come together at the end, the piano in unison with a brilliant piccolo, the
ensemble making a lighthearted march to the close.
The second movement, Andante, could easily be mistaken
for a composition by Rachmaninoff in its soulful sound. Only strings, piano, and
a single horn are heard exchanging tender, lyrical lines, the right hand piano
part singing a plangent tune above slow arpeggios in the left. There are no
fireworks, only the sort of longing melody one associates with Russian composers
of an earlier, more romantic era.
The piano immediately segues into another quick-stepping
movement with the second Allegro, this one quite rollicking in tone.
There are several sections of rippling scales and arpeggios which, according to
Shostakovich, were actually quotes from the well-known finger exercises of Hanon;
including them in the concerto, the composer said, was the only way he could
force his son to practice them! As in the first movement, a jolly tune trades
places with a brisk theme coupled with snare, the latter scored in the unusual
meter of 7/8. Strings and winds often play either theme as counterpoint to the
piano's "exercises." The short movement comes to a quick climax as the
ensemble, led by flute and piccolo, sounds a call and races to a galloping
February 27, 2001