Our music for this week is the second movement (andante) from Shostakovich’s piano concerto in F minor.
This concerto has unfortunately received a significant amount of criticism because of its light-hearted first and third movements, which have been labeled as nursery rhymes unworthy for high level performance. The second movement, however, has received only admiration and praise. Many notable critics, composers, conductors, and musicians have heralded it as the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful piece of music they have ever heard. Shostakovich pulls out all the stops, so to speak, in creating music that is incredibly lyrical, yet also hauntingly reminiscent of the times in which Shostakovich lived. The piano is accompanied by the entire orchestra, but the strings are utilized especially heavily. This is particularly apparent in the first few bars, where the strings move through a breathtaking chorale before the piano’s startlingly beautiful entrance nearly a quarter of the way into the piece.
Shostakovich, a Russian, composed the work in 1957. The shadows of Soviet Russia pervade the music from its first notes. Even the astoundingly beautiful melodies of the second movement do not escape its reach. One can hear the despair, the pain, and the suffering that came with the Soviet era in Russia’s history in the way that Shostakovich utilizes harmonic tension between the strings and the brass. For me, it evokes images of rural Hungary that were implanted on my mind when I traveled to that country during my senior year of high school. There too, the shadow of the Soviet rule was heavy on the land. It manifested itself in run-down villages, an aged population with a dying language, farming villages with outdated machinery, and cities full of modern structures surrounding the select few heritage buildings that escaped destruction. Perhaps Shostakovich had other images in mind when he was writing this work, but the influence of the era is unmistakable. I prefer the words of one critic who referred to the second movement as “tender with a touch of melancholy.”