Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No.1

The history of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat major is linked to the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), who encouraged notable artists of the twentieth century to write works for cello. In 1943 Rostropovich enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied composition with Shostakovich. The young musician greatly appreciated his professor, and when Shostakovich was dismissed in 1948, he abandoned his studies immediately in solidarity. There was a deep respect and friendship between the two. They performed the Cello and Piano Sonata, Op. 40 many times. This gave Rostropovich reason to harbour the hope for years that Shostakovich would write a concerto for him. As the cellist later shared, once when he talked to Shostakovich’s wife Nina Vasilievna about what he should do to get him to compose a cello concerto, she replied that the only advice she could give him was never to ask or talk to him about it.

Shostakovich commenced writing his Cello Concerto No.1 on May 1st,  1959. It was completed on July 20th, of the same year at the Creative House of Composers in Komarovo. Later Shostakovich composed a second concerto for cello and orchestra (1966) for the great musician.

In an interview with the Soviet Culture newspaper on June 6th,  1959, Shostakovich said he was writing a cello concerto for orchestra. Its first movement (Allegretto) has already been complete; it is a “jocular march”. The concerto will be in three movements. Conceived long ago, the idea came from Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphonie-Concertante for cello and orchestra, which provoked his desire to try his hand at this genre. Interestingly, Prokofiev composed his work, persuaded by Rostropovich, while he was working as his secretary at the conservatory.

Rostropovich learns the concerto immediately. Just four days after receiving the scores in a version for cello and piano on August 2nd,  1959, he played it by heart with his accompanist at private run-through  at the Creative House in Komarovo. It was premiered with Rostropovich and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra on October 4th,  1959 under the baton of  Yevgeny  Mravinsky.

The concert consists of four parts. It is scored for a smaller ensemble with double woodwinds and one French horn, timpani, celesta and strings. The French horn has an important role as a partner to the cello. The Shostakovich’s ubiquitous DSCH (D, E-flat, C, B) calling card also appears in the work.

Shostakovich describes the first movement (Allegretto) as a “jocular march”, but it is a frenetic rather than happy jocularity, built on the questioning movement of the theme and its variants. The composer used the theme as early as 1948 in his music for the film The Young Guard, where it sounds like a funeral march in the episode “Death of Heroes”. Here it sounded transformed and turned to be among his most satirical examples. The theme is interwoven with Shostakovich’s monogram motif, which is also incorporated into the second theme of the sonata allegro, built on the characteristic elements of both themes. The dialogue between the cello and French horn is highlighted and recalls all the major moments in the work. Like the Prokofiev work that inspired the concerto, the abrupt two cymbal crashes underscore the end of the movement.

The next three movements are performed uninterrupted. Together they form a single whole with unified themes and images. The slow second movement (Moderato) is emotionally intense. It is structured as a three-movement form, its middle section sounding painfully agitated against the overall more elegiac tone. The cello against the celesta at the end of the movement creates a sense of ghostliness. The solo cadenza, which is designed to demonstrate Rostropovich’s astonishing technique, is remarkable at 148 bars, and is taken as a third movement in its own right, unifying the whole work – beginning with thematic material from the second movement, followed by musical reflections on the first movement, and unfolding as the cello part is filled with gamine passages and leaps at the end, setting up the rhythmic intensity of the finale. The last movement (Allegro con moto) alternates seriousness and wry laughter. The theme is a veiled reference to the sentimental Georgian love song Suliko, which was said to have been Stalin’s favourite tune. He also used it in his musical satire of the Soviet political system, Rayok (1948-1968). The mood is sombre again, enhanced by the timpani. The coda begins with the theme from the first movement in French horn. The opening and final themes intertwine, the virtuoso soloist’s part stands out. The concerto ends with seven timpani strokes that echo through time.

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