Shostakovich: Complete Works for Piano Trio
Shostakovich’s commitment to communicating with a broad public, combined with the aesthetic demands of the Soviet state, ensured that unlike many of his contemporaries in the West, he did not join the ranks of the avant-garde “innovators.” But he was not a conservative—he repudiated those who slavishly imitated past masters. In a 1968 interview, he explained his attitude toward modernist techniques: “To a certain extent I think the formula ‘the end justifies the means’ is valid in music. All means? All of them, if they contribute to the end objective.”
© 2006 by Robert Rival
Three factors have led many observers to assign meaning to this apparent eclecticism. The first is internal to the music. The cyclic return, in the finale, of music from prior movements—the passacaglia (third movement) and the canon (first)—hints at a narrative. The two other factors are external: one private, the other public. Several months into the composition of the Trio, Shostakovich’s close friend, the influential historian and art critic Ivan Sollertinsky, died suddenly of a heart attack. “I am indebted to him for all my growth,” wrote Shostakovich, and dedicated the Trio to his mentor. The other external factor concerns the Red Army’s liberation of Nazi death camps at Treblinka and elsewhere that came to the composer’s attention as he completed his Trio. He was particularly horrified by stories that SS guards had made their victims dance beside their own graves, an image that no doubt influenced the finale’s grotesque “dance of death.”
But as tempting as it is to ascribe a definite programme to the Trio, the work ultimately resists such a reading. After all, there are no words, and instrumental music is a notoriously imprecise conveyor of rational thought. Is it a musical monument for an individual? Or a public memorial for the victims of fascism? Could it be both—or neither? Is it just deeply moving music? If nothing else, the Trio prompts the listener to ponder such questions.
In 1979, four years after Shostakovich’s death, Solomon Volkov shocked the musical world by publishing Testimony: The Memoirs of Dimitry Shostakovich in which he turned the accepted image of the composer on its head, from a stalwart socialist supporter to a secret dissident. The following year, however, Laurel Fay published a well-researched rebuke that challenged Volkov’s scholarly credibility and the memoirs’ authenticity. These were the opening salvoes of the so-called Shostakovich “wars.”
Silvestrov quotes the DSCH monogram as a musical tribute to the Russian master. The monogram, not immediately recognizable because of octave displacement and pointillist distribution, emerges more audibly when repeated in the soprano, piano bass and violin. Draped in pure major chords, this dreamy meditation produces an elegiac soundscape. In the spirit—though definitely not in the style—of Shostakovich, Silvestrov’s Postlude also begs questions about its own meaning, and is thus a poignant requiem for arguably the twentieth century’s greatest composer.