The following year, feeling oppressed by the somewhat rigid teaching regime at the Petrograd Conservatoire, he travelled to Moscow to apply to continue his studies at the Conservatoire there. On 8 April 1924 Shostakovich wrote to his mother describing the audition, at which he played some cello pieces and the Piano Trio to a panel including the composer Myaskovsky: ‘I played the cello pieces myself, and the Trio with the violinist Vlasov and the cellist Klevensky. They played appallingly … but the result was completely unexpected. I could never have imagined it. They decided to regard the Trio as my sonata-form piece, and immediately I was accepted on the free composition course.’
Shostakovich did not, in the end, move to Moscow, mainly because of his mother’s concern about his poor health, and he continued his studies at Petrograd. To supplement the family’s meagre income, Shostakovich had taken a job as a cinema pianist accompanying silent films. According to his sister, Zoya Dmitryevna, at the cinema Shostakovich and two friends rehearsed the Piano Trio for a performance, as accompaniment to the film that was playing that day. If this story is true, it is not surprising to hear that, as Zoya relates, the audience was not always tolerant of Shostakovich’s accompaniments: ‘There were often scandals, and the people whistled and booed.’ There is, however, something almost cinematic about this early Trio, with its sharp contrasts of pace and mood that can easily conjure up images like an Eisenstein film (though Eistenstein’s first masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, did not appear until 1925). A love of striking and theatrical contrasts had been fundamental to Shostakovich’s musical character from an early age. The novelist Konstantin Fedin remembered hearing him as a young boy play to the family and their guests: ‘By some obscure law of contradictions the bony boy was transformed at the piano into a bold musician with a man’s strength in his fingers and an arresting rhythmic drive. He played his own compositions, which were full of the influences of the new music—unexpected works which forced one to listen as if one were in the theatre, where everything is so clear that one must either laugh or weep.’
The Trio is in a single movement, cast in a large-scale sonata form, with two contrasted themes, and a development section that rises to climaxes. But more striking than this formal procedure is the range of material that Shostakovich deploys, and the transformation that themes undergo. The opening theme, with its drooping semitones interspersed with yearning leaps, supplies the material for agitated passages, for a spiky, brooding version of the theme (one of the grotesque touches that seems most like the mature Shostakovich), and for a dramatic climax. This is followed by a dreamy second theme, which Shostakovich took from an incomplete piano sonata. Despite this origin, it seems somewhat related to the first theme: the drooping semitones have gone, but the yearning leaps remain. After the dramatic development, which breaks off suddenly, the themes recur in reverse order.
Already, this student work contains recognizable Shostakovich hallmarks: lyrical melodies coloured by acerbic harmonies, sudden contrasts of pace and energy, insistent rhythms, and spare textures giving way to unashamedly romantic passages and powerful climaxes. All of this we can hear as a preparation for his triumphant graduation composition two year later, the First Symphony. The Trio, however, was not published during Shostakovich’s lifetime, and the edition that appeared after his death was assembled from various autograph sources, none of them complete scores. The last twenty-two bars of the piano part were missing, and were supplied by Shostakovich’s pupil, Boris Tishchenko.
from notes by Robert Philip © 2011