Shostakovich’s insane dance on Stalin’s grave

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Spooky times. © Charles Thibo

Have a look at the picture – what do you see? Not much, I agree. It is dark, an eery light hovers over the horizon. A few lights, one on the top of a distant tall building. It’s a lighthouse. On an island. Shadowy figures walking briskly down a paved road. What are they up to? Would you feel comfortable walking behind these people? Now imagine this scenery with howling winds, battering rain and the uncertainty of being in time for the last ferry. Finally the soundtrack: the first movement of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107. Now you have reasons to shiver and to feel tight.

A piece written for Rostropovich

We have seen already how sarcasm, a certain defiant aloofness characterizes Shostakovich’s later works, and the beginning of the first movement displays a surprising defiance. In June 1959, while Nikita Khrushchev was reforming the Soviet society, Shostakovich announces that he had begun to write a cello concerto with an allegretto in the character of a humorous march. But this goes way beyond humour. This is an insane dance tune performed by the dead king’s fool with shock and awe as the intended reaction. He finished the score within a month and sent the news to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, a close friend. Within days an exuberant Rostropovich had memorized the concert and was set for a first run-through.

The premiere took place on October 4, 1959 with Yevgeni Mavrinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and the famous cellist playing the solo part. The piece had a resounding success, both at the premiere in Leningrad and five days later in Moscow. Did Shostakovich pick up the Soviet population’s mood with the first movement? Ecstatic joy as the tensions between East and West eased and the spectre of nuclear annihilation seemed temporarily banned and in the middle of an unparalleled liberalization of life in the Soviet Union?

Grotesque fun and allusions

If we keep this political development in mind, the second movement of Op. 107 with its slow and tense melodies may look like a cautious look back on a violent past – is it really all over now? As Shostakovich and the Soviet people would find out, Khrushchev would not last long and would eventually be replaced by another authoritarian apparatchik. The third movement, called “Cadenza” by Shostakovich, is of a reflective nature, the long pauses, the isolated pizzicato notes add to the eery effect. The last movement finally is a grotesque distortion of a Georgian folk song of the name of “Suliko”, apparently Stalin’s favorite folk tune. Shostakovich had reasons to triumph: he had outlived Stalin’s rule and he had escaped deportation to a labour camp.

Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 is an outstanding piece of art, fully packed with different emotions and allusions, and when performed by Alisa Weilerstein and the Symphonieorchester des Bayrischen Rundfunks under Pablo Heras-Casado an absolute delight.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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