Composed some twenty years earlier, in 1944, the opening of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, shares a similar austerity: a three-part canon, with its cello harmonics, muted strings and low piano octaves, evokes an eerie atmosphere. But in contrast to the mostly contemplative Seven Verses, the Trio covers more varied ground: in the second movement is nestled a waltz; the Passacaglia, a mournful elegy, is built on a slow eight-chord ostinato in the piano; and the rondo finale is in a Jewish folk idiom.
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.