Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1

Dmitri Shostakovich’s problems with Stalin and with Soviet censorship were so distressing and influenced his work to such an extent that they defined and became a part of his image as a composer. What was more, at the height of the Cold War, Shostakovich was one of the few Soviet composers who could count on Western recognition — precisely because of his problematic relationship with the Kremlin. What is less well known, however, is that he was able to compose without hindrance until 1936.

The Soviet regime was particularly progressive in its artistic policies for a time after the Russian Revolution: a new society required new artistic styles and the avant-garde were encouraged to deliver of their best. This was the time when Sergei Eisenstein produced his innovatory cinematic masterpieces Strike and The Battleship Potemkin and when the literary Futurist and Absurdist schools were given free rein, as long as they did not try to express any anti-Soviet ideas. Stalin had had quite enough of this policy by 1928: from the first Five-Year Plan onwards, artists were classified as workers who were required make their own contribution to the Soviet utopia. Socialist realism became the watchword for every Soviet artist from that moment onwards: this meant art that reflected reality and that could be understood by every worker. Avant-garde organisations were shut down and were replaced by associations who ensured that their members’ creations were firmly in step with current political opinion.

Shostakovich had been treated with kid gloves up until this time and was therefore somewhat naïve; he tried to adapt by adding socialist titles, texts and themes to his works and got away with writing relatively modern music. This tactic was successful until 1936, when Stalin himself personally intervened, as is described in the articles about the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies here. Three years previously, Shostakovich, then aged 27, had composed his witty Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra. Every single part of this concerto gives clear proof of the young composer’s carefree and almost overconfident attitude, from the trumpet’s commentary on the rapid virtuoso passages, the quotations, parodies and musical jokes to musical slapstick. Shostakovich could compose with humour alongside the best; there are of course examples of his humour in his music even after 1936, although it would never be as spontaneous and as original as in this piano concerto.

Translation: Peter Lockwood