Invariably, descriptions and analyses of Shostakovich’s music focus on the composer’s relation to Stalin and the intense political situation of the former Soviet Union. People read different meanings from his music, some critics calling passage triumphant, others sarcastic and ironic, depending on their own orientation. A terrific example is the final passage in the 5th symphony. Is it a representation of heroic victory as its fanfare D major implies, or does it really portray a false triumph revealed when Shostakovich adds the terrifying pounding of the bass drum at the very end?
But these fascinating questions tend to obscure the actual music, and there is a lot to interest us in Shostakovich’s style. For one thing, his scores look almost ridiculously simple when compared to his contemporaries, say Bartok or Stravinsky, or even music 50 years earlier with late Romantics like Mahler and Strauss. It’s perhaps not an unfair exaggeration to say that Shostakovich favors half notes and quarter notes in fairly even rhythms. To the eye, its texture scans crystal clear. Harmonies are not obscured in a haze. He favors counterpoint in the sense of placing themes on top of each other and we can hear this combination in sharp focus. His orchestration is in one sense superb, because he establishes memorable moments with unusual colors. But then on the other hand, it looks and plays like piano music. Much of it really does fit in the hands to play that way. For these reasons, many criticized his music as being out of touch with the 20th century.
But with such a determination towards reduction and simplicity, why is Shostakovich’s harmonic language so slippery? We hear it is tonal, but it seems to leave its familiar chords in a strange way, and to arrive back at them even more strangely. Prokofiev enlarges the tonality of previous Romantic composers with chord substitutions, but otherwise his chord progressions are functional—one chord clearly “leads” to the next. But Shostakovich’s progressions are not so clear. They slide away imperceptibly from simple triads to dissonance. Adjacent chords rarely have the traditional 5th relationships of tonal harmony. In fact, for Shostakovich, the V-I progression, the root of all tonality, becomes really something of a special effect, to introduce his marches or make a completely unexpected arrival. Eventually his music always returns to the simpler harmonies of the classic era, but we’re never entirely sure how he got there! This unique style provides him a tremendous reservoir of expressivity, since he can flexibly move across an extremely wide harmonic range. And that is what grabs us repeatedly in Shostakovich’s music. It takes us on an intense but deliberate journey. We’re not sure where we are headed or how we are going, but each moment is convincing and compelling. We wonder what will happen next, and when we stick with it, we find the contrast of the most desolate isolation and the highest pitched exultation at turns has us weeping, depressed, thrilled, deeply moved, and awed.
Shostakovich Cello Concerto
This concerto is less a showpiece than a deep journey, the type of journey that is not dissimilar to Shostakovich’s 5th symphony. Shostakovich resists the tradition of wowing the audience with a cadenza, instead using the cadenza as an opportunity to create an entirely new movement that bridges the emotional energy between the deeply spiritual slow movement and the frenzied energy of the finale. In this way, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movement together create an impressive emotional arc.
Further, the concerto recalls something of the essence and quality of Beethoven’s 5th—an obsession with a four note motto, fragmentation, development of a single idea over the course of four movements, and a sense of economy of material. That economy is also reflected in the orchestration, which uses only a single brass instrument—the French horn—yet does not in any way suffer for a lack of power. The key of the piece—E flat—as well as its tone also makes reference to the mighty Beethoven 3rd symphony, the Eroica, and that may have some programmatic significance to the piece as well.
Then there is the case of the cipher: Shostakovich inscribes his own name in the piece repeatedly with a four note motive— D-E flat-C-B— that became a code he used in many of his pieces. This code probably was his mirror of J.S. Bach’s famous code for his own name—B flat-A-C-B natural— that he used so famously in his final contrapuntal masterpiece, The Art of the Fugue (B in German represents the note B flat, H in German represents the note B). So Shostakovich reduces his much more complex name to the four letter monogram D. Sch for Dmitri Shostakovich. Then he too borrows from the German: S in German is the word for E flat and again H in German represents B natural, hence D-E flat-C-B.
Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet is completely centered around this name motive, and while he public dedicated it to the victims of fascism and war, in a private letter discovered much later, he revealed its true dedication was to himself, “dedicated to the composer of this quartet.” He felt he had to compose his own memorial because no one else might want to! Incidentally, that of course was not the case. For just one example, I had the honor of studying briefly with composer Joseph Dorfman who grew up in the Soviet Union and with Shostakovich before finally emigrating to Israel. One of his finest works is a piano trio dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich and it too makes liberal use of Shostakovich’s musical monogram.
The cello concerto immediately hints at the motive in its Beethovenian-style opening, but then realizes it fully with its syncopated second theme, that inverts the motive to C-B-E flat-D. Both tunes return continually in the concerto. The first movement combines and fragments both ideas extensively and vigorously in a development section that emphasizes the 4 note rhythm itself to the point of nearly recalling Beethoven’s 5th symphony itself! The movement concludes with a brief recapitulation, instead of the long extensive first movements we expect in concerti. This opening piece is almost epigrammatic, leaving the impression of an aggressive prickly military march.
The meat of the work is in the second movement, an expressive essay that begins in tragic reflection and heads for extreme passion. In between is chamber music between the cello and clarinet, and a gentle dance. The cello relentlessly builds to a terrific melodic climax over a tutti ostinato in the orchestra, preparing the way for a loud dramatic recapitulation of the opening material. The movement concludes with the same kind of haunting effect Shostakovich uses in his fifth symphony. A celesta appears and accompanies the cello over wandering string lines.
It is from this deeply remote emotional pocket that the cello begins its cadenza. This cadenza movement mirrors the wide range and capacity of the cello itself, an instrument that encompasses the widest range of any of the string or wind instruments in the orchestra. It begins low and quiet, builds to passionate chords in the middle register, explores effects like pizzicato, then ascends in register with dramatic double stops, ultimately focusing on impassioned melodies and scales that stretch to the highest register of the instrument while quoting the motive from the first movement.
The cadenza prepares the wild manic circus music of the fourth movement. The second theme of this movement at first sounds brand new, but we eventually realize it is the opening motive of the concerto transformed rhythmically. The horn makes this connection obvious and the entire orchestra quotes from the first movement directly, building to a final vigorous statement in the coda.