I remember a delightful scene from the movie “Aliens”: a desolate planet, home to gruesome predators set to kill human space colonizers. Construction work is going on as unsuspecting colonizers go about their business. The camera then pivots sideways and a company logo moves into the picture. Its slogan: Building better worlds. Laughter guaranteed.
Not too long ago I started into my lunch break and walked past a construction site myself while listening to Dmitry Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra in C minor, Op. 35 (recording by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly). And I came to think about that movie scene and Shostakovich’s mood when he composed it.
Being on the right side of history
Shostakovich believed in building a better world through advancing the Communist cause. Unfortunately the Soviet Union never became a really good world, let alone a better one than its market-oriented, democratic alternative, not without faults itself. But Shostakovich wrote this piece in 1933 against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise and before Stalin’s purges targeted scientists, artists, bureaucrats and the military. The composer had reasons to be confident that the Communist society would make the Soviet Union a better place. It feels so good to believe one is on the right side of history, especially if you have a clear-cut vision of good and evil. Hitler was evil, so anyone opposing him must be good – a common mistake.
Shostakovich’s biographer Laurel E. Fay describes the concerto as the composer’s “first venture into the realm of traditional symphony structures since the completion of his First Symphony eight years earlier”. Symphonic yes, but distinctly Shostakovich style, modern, avant-garde as would befit the mood of an optimistic and deeply patriotic composer. At this time, despite earlier ideological “errors”, he still was one of the cherished composers of the Communist Party and had composed a number of patriotic pieces like “The Song of the Counterplan” celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Revolution and his Symphony No. 3 “First of May”.
Piano and trumpet – two companions
The concerto is marked by a very ebullient mood, a hodge-podge of styles with elements borrowed from jazz, paraphrases of Beethoven, Haydn and Mahler and a traditional Russian folk song (in the finale). Its fresh, youthful and brash style ensured that “the concerto would become a repertory staple, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser” as Fay puts it. It is actually a piano concerto with the trumpet being granted a number of delightful solo parts, testimonies of Shostakovich’s wit and sense of humour. At the premiere in Leningrad in 1933, Shostakovich performed the piano part and had the trumpeter stand close to him to underline his prominent part.
As you may know by now, through my many posts on Shostakovich, this man continues to fascinate me because of his music, but also through the evolution of his personality from ardent Communist believer to a sceptic, if not an “enemy of the people”. The constant fight for survival as an artist under the worst possible circumstances, a totalitarian regime, was his fate. A brave man. A fantastic composer. An inspiring artist.
© Charles Thibo