Dimitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto Number 1

One of the nicest things about going to college was being on the circuit for performing arts. Though Purdue University had earned its reputation in the hard sciences, during the fall semester of 1973, I saw a staggering number of “soft” cultural events there. Just running my mind back over them now astounds me, because I saw the Guarneri String Quartet, a sing-in of Handel’s Messiah, a dramatic reading of selected works of Hemingway, a performance of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Mstislav Rostropovich perform today’s piece.

My friend, Eric Tollar, and I went to see the Shostakovich, and I was overwhelmed. Never had I seen a concerto for solo instrument performed by a world-class performer backed by a world-class orchestra. I watched in awe as Rostropovich did things with a the cello that I had no idea could be done. I remember saying to someone afterwards, “He played on two strings at once,” which I later learned watching my daughter take violin lessons, was called “double stops.” Rostropovich played so dramatically that I sat on the edge of the chair during the whole piece. This was in 1974, before, I think, Rostropovich defected from the Soviet Union, and during the midst of the Cold War. Before this, I had not heard any modern Soviet music, and had heard it was all dull socialist realist crap. But this music was dynamic and alive.

The first movement has a dramatic, galloping rhythm that carries you along. After the concert, I asked my friend Eric Tollar what he thought of the concerto. He immediately repeated this rhythm, making fun of it as if it were out of a Hollywood action movie–like when the cavalry charges in to rescue the day. I was dumbfounded, for he had pretty impeccable tastes in music, and I couldn’t understand how he could have remained unmoved by this piece.

Shostakovich Biography

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

5 Responses to Dimitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto Number 1

  1. Carl says:

    My favorite composer! This and #2 are great as are the piano concertos, but the symphonies are my favorite, #s 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, and 15!


    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks for your comment. Ruefully, I have neglected Shostakovich over the years. A friend did introduce me to the 5th symphony a while back and it’s an amazing piece. A couple of years ago I heard a beautiful trio, I think, at the church St. Martin’s in the Field. Very haunting. I should make my New Years resolution to listen to his complete works. All the best.


      • Carl says:

        Fabulous music. Symphony 4 is shockingly modern and intense. #5 is more conservative in response to harsh criticism from Stalin. #7 is the greatest “war symphony” with the best military march you’ll ever hear. #10 was created after Stalin’s death and it is the opposite of sweet. The scherzo from #10 is some of the scariest music you’ll ever hear. #15 is almost a perfect portrait of an old man looking back at a long life, not wanting to go back but sad to be leaving.


  2. hilarycustancegreen says:

    I find this very exciting, with overtones of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale.


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