Cello Concerto No. 2
Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire. Concert to celebrate Shostakovich’s sixtieth birthday. State Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Y. Svetlanov. Soloist M. Rostropovich.
.1967. Score, “Muzfond” Publishers, Moscow, 1967. Piano score, “Muzfond” Publishers, Moscow,
The hand-written score is in the archive of the composer’s family.
“After I had studied this Concerto for the first time, I came to the Crimea - to Yalta - with my cello and my pianist and in some theatre or other, where there was a piano,I played this work to Shostakovich for the first time. This was the first time in my life that Shostakovich had shown me a work not yet complete: he never used to show people incomplete works, but he showed me the Second Concerto , when he had only written the beginning. He showed it to me, because he was not very happy with it and he realized that he was turning to the ‘evaluator’. Meanwhile, I was ‘infected’ by this work and, you know, the wiser our genius became, the simpler the score became. I looked at the score and thought, what a long time the strings are playing, then the harps come in, and for a long time as well. Yet you know, when you look at a score by Richard Strauss, there are so many instruments, the page looks like a close mesh. Yet when the orchestra plays it, it sounds fairly simple. With Shostakovich the opposite is the case: it looks very simple, but sounds amazing, like some kind of revelation. I simply adore this concerto and regard it as the best one Shostakovich wrote for our every-day life”
Cello Concerto No. 2
Shostakovich wrote the Second Cello Concerto, Op. 126, in the spring of 1966. It is very likely that he composed the second movement of the Concerto first, which is based on the melody of a popular street song of the 1920s called “‘Bubliks For Sale’. Mstislav Rostropovich, to whom the Concerto is dedicated, recalled that Shostakovich played him the theme of ‘Bubliks’ on the piano at New Year in 1966 at his dacha in Zhukovka near Moscow. Shostakovich was probably thinking about the new cello concerto as early as 1963 when he did a new instrumentation of Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto and designated it as Opus 125. The premiere of the First Cello Concerto of Shostakovich’s favourite student, Boris Tishchenko (1939-2011), held in Leningrad on 5 and 6 February 1966, could have given the composer an additional impetus for writing his Concerto. Shostakovich did not attend the premiere, but he saw the score and later, in 1969, did his own instrumentation of this concerto. Just like Tishchenko’s concerto, Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto opens with a solo cello monologue.
In a letter to Isaak Glikman of 20 March, Shostakovich said: ‘I am now writing the Second Cello Concerto. I am finishing up the first movement.’ In the margins of the first page of the drafts of the first movement of the Concerto is the date: 17 III.
There is reason to believe that the elegiac first movement was written after the composer found out about the death of great Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova (5 March 1966). The poetess’ funeral was held on 10 March in Leningrad at the Nikola Morskoy Cathedral and attended by tens of thousands of people. Shostakovich himself was in Moscow that day. After the rehearsal of his new Eleventh String Quartet in the composer’s flat soon after Akhmatova’s funeral, Shostakovich, according to Fyodor Druzhinin, the violist for the Beethoven Quartet, said the following in memory of Akhmatova: ‘Akhmatova was the queen of Russian poetry!’ A week later, he began the first, slow, movement of the new Cello Concerto.
Shostakovich never wrote music to Akhmatova’s poems, but he often talked about her: ‘She is immutable. And quiet... She has experienced enough pain to last for several lifetimes… What she has been through is beyond compare.’ The lives of Shostakovich and Akhmatova were similar in many ways—both lived most of their lives in Soviet Russia; both were severely criticised by officialdom, Akhmatova in 1946 and Shostakovich in 1936 and 1948; and both were incredibly popular and loved. Intonations of the first and last movements of the Second Cello Concerto can clearly be heard in the finale, ‘To Anna Akhmatova’, of Shostakovich’s late vocal cycle, ‘Six Songs on Poems by Marina Tsvetayeva’ (1974).
The Second Cello Concerto occupies a special place in Shostakovich’s creative work. It (and the Eleventh String Quartet that directly preceded it) is the start of the composer’s late period of creativity, which carries us back to the beginning of the 20th century, into the atmosphere of the so-called Silver Age, into the era in which Shostakovich was born and spent his childhood.
The structure of the Second Cello Concerto is very unusual. It does not have any of the clearly expressed thematic contrasts of sonata form that play such an important role in many of Shostakovich’s other earlier works. The contrast of two themes is replaced by a clash of different aspects of one and the same theme, which changes beyond recognition depending on the context.
Instrumentation of the Concerto is distinguished by the transparency typical of Shostakovich’s late period of creativity. There are relatively few instruments, double winds, but two harps; the brass group is represented by only two French horns, and, just as in the First Cello Concerto, the French horn is a sort of counterpart for the soloist in the first and second movements. In the finale, both French horns play together and in canon, prompting the solo cellist to compete: in the cadenza episodes, the cello solo, to the accompaniment of the tambourine, essentially imitates the signals of the French horn that were only just played.
The percussion instruments (four performers, as indicated by the composer in the author’s manuscript of the score) play an enormous part in the orchestra—their role perceptibly grows in Shostakovich’s late works. In the Second Cello Concerto, the solo cellist performs all of his solo episodes accompanied by percussion: the big drum, as well as the tambourine and small drum.
The Second Cello Concerto was begun on 17 March 1966 in Moscow and finished on 27 April 1966 in Yalta. Shostakovich, who usually never showed unfinished compositions to the performers, made an exception this time: he, as Rostropovich testified, asked him how difficult it was to play parallel tenths, as well as double stops in fourths, on three strings. Incidentally, Shostakovich wrote the tenths as early as the rough draft of the first movement from the very beginning, while he only designated the chromatic course by means of broken fourths on three strings in the draft, writing only the two upper fourths and the word ‘chrom’, clearly doubting the possibility of performing this passage. Rostropovich assured Shostakovich that the parallel tenths would not be a problem and, to prove it, played them for the composer cleanly and convincingly. “Afterwards,” recalled Rostropovich, “I regretted this success, for every time I perform the work in public and arrive at that spot I get nervous, I have to pray that I wouldn’t miss that first chord. Dmitri Dmitriyevich suggested that he could give the lower voice to the violas, but I persuaded him to leave it in the way he had first written it.
The Second Cello Concerto was first performed by Mstislav Rostropovich and the State U.S.S.R.Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Evgeny Svetlanov on the composer’s 60th birthday and in his presence in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on 25 September 1966. As early as 5 October, Rostropovich performed the European premiere at the London Royal Festival Hall with the BBC orchestra under the baton of Colin Davis. The American premiere was held on 26 February 1967 in Carnegie Hall in New York, where Rostropovich soloed with the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.
The Concerto score was first published by Muzfond in 1967 and by Sovetsky kompozitor Publishers in 1970. The piano score done by the composer himself was first published by Sovetsky kompozitor Publishers in Moscow in 1969 in 1,630 copies. A copy of the original manuscript of the score is kept in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Archive in Moscow: 77 pages of score with the author’s pagination, plus a title page and page indicating the orchestral instruments.
- Boston Symphony Orchestra. Soloist: M. Rostropovich Conductor: S. Ozawa 1975 // Deutsche Grammophon 2530 653, 1976
- The Big Symphony Orchestra of the All-Union Radio and Television. Soloist: V. Feigin Conductor: M. Shostakovich 1980 // Melodia C 10-13769-70