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Sonata for Cello and Piano in d minor, Op. 40 (1934)

February 8, 2015 – David Finckel, cello; Wu Han, piano

While interpreting the events of a composer’s life as impetus for his creative work is always risky business, one important personal development from Shostakovich’s life around the time of his Cello Sonata nevertheless remains inescapable. In the summer of 1934, Shostakovich fell passionately in love with Yelena Konstaninovskaya, a 20-year-old translator. Much to the dismay of his wife Nina (despite their mutual agreement to an open marriage), the composer spent the majority of their summer holiday writing letter to his young mistress. “There is nothing in you which fails to send a wave of joy and fierce passion inside me when I think of you,” he wrote. “Lyalya, I love you so, I love you so, as nobody ever loved before. My love, my gold, my dearest, I love you so; I lay down my love before you.”

William T. Vollman dedicates a chapter of his epic novel Europe Central to the tempting–albeit improbable–influence of the affair with Konstaninovskaya on the music of the Cello Sonata. Though rooted in fancy, Vollman’s poetic assessment of the work nevertheless speaks to its lyrical pathos and sense of romantic abandon:

Each of Shostakovich’s symphonies I consider to be a multiply broken bridge, an archipelago of steel trailing off into the river. Opus 40, however, is a house with four rooms……[He] built Opus 40 for her and him to dwell in, and she led him inside. They were going to have an apartment with a dark passageway, then steps and halfsteps. They’d live there, deep below the piano keys in Moscow. Nina could stay in Leningrad… Therefore, Opus 40, and in particular the first movement, composed of firelight and kisses, remains the most romantic thing that Shostakovich ever wrote.

Shostakovich and Nina separated, and the composer, as Vollman alludes, remained in Moscow with no definite plans to follow his wife back to Leningrad. It was during this time that work on the Cello Sonata began. By 1935, however, Nina was pregnant with the Shostakoviches’ first child, and the marriage essentially righted itself (which did not preclude later extramarital affairs by both Dmitry and Nina). Shortly after the affair ended, Konstaninovskaya received an anonymous political denunciation and spent roughly a year in prison.

Shostakovich composed the Cello Sonata for the cellist Viktor Kubatsky, an esteemed cellist and one-time principal at the Bolshoi Theater. Shostakovich, also an able pianist, subsequently toured with Kubatsky, premiering his Cello Sonata in Leningrad on Christmas Day, 1934, alongside the cello sonatas of Grieg and Rachmaninov. The composer reportedly performed the piano parts to all three works from memory.

©2006 Patrick Castillo

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