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Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, op. 8

October 30, 2016: Wu Han, piano; Philip Setzer, violin; David Finckel, cello

The sixteen-year-old Shostakovich composed his First Piano Trio in the throes of love for Tatyana Glivenko, daughter of a well-known Moscow philologist. He had met her on holiday on the Crimean peninsula in the summer of 1923 and wrote home to his mother extolling the virtue of “free love,” though he commented that marriage was valuable for family life. He maintained a relationship with Tatyana for years—largely through correspondence, for they were often geographically separated.

Toward the end of the summer of 1923, when Tatyana had already gone home, Shostakovich began his one-movement Piano Trio. He wrote to Tatyana asking her permission to dedicate the piece to her and divulged, “About three years ago I wrote a piano sonata; it was of course a childish thing, immature, but it had some material that was not bad and which I included in the trio in the form of a second subject.” Scholar Sofia Khentova reports that he also employed material from the first movement of a quintet he had written and abandoned the previous April.

According to some sources, the Trio received a trial performance during the screening of a silent film on October 25, 1923, at the Harlequinade Cinema in Petrograd, with violinist Veniamen Sher, cellist Grigori Pekker, and the composer at the piano. Others assert that Shostakovich did not begin playing piano for silent films until 1924. In any case, the same group did perform the work, provisionally retitled Poem, at the Petrograd Conservatory in December 1923 (on the 13th or 19th, depending on the source).

On April 7, 1924, Shostakovich played the Trio as part of his successful audition for entry into the Moscow Conservatory. Another performance, often listed as the public premiere, took place on March 20, 1925, at the Moscow Conservatory with violinist Nikolas Fyodorov, cellist Anatoli Yegorov, and pianist Lev Oborin. The composer performed the Trio several more times, but the score then lay in obscurity until 1983, when it was published with the reconstruction of a missing passage of twenty-two measures in the piano part, made in 1981 by Shostakovich student Boris Tischenko.

Written in Shostakovich’s early post-Romantic style, the Trio contains only hints of some of his later edgy sonorities, but does show characteristic marchlike and perpetual-motion ideas alongside lush lyricism. The introduction begins meditatively with three chromatically descending notes in the cello that generate much of the movement. The main theme proper exhibits both forthright and scherzando qualities. His self-borrowing, which would become a lifelong trait, appears here, as he mentioned to Tatyana, in his lyrical second theme, emerging as a singing cello melody from ethereal piano chords. It unfolds almost identically—even as to key (E-flat major), time signature (6/4), and tempo marking (Andante)—to the second movement of a B minor piano sonata he had written and discarded in 1920 or 1921, thus preserving the material he modestly called “not bad.”

Shostakovich’s sonata form is free and rhapsodic, swinging easily in and out of many keys and incorporating a wide variety of tempos. He ends in a grand, climatic recall of his lyrical theme, capped by a brief rush of the perpetual motion.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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