Listen to the entrance to the second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2. If you don’t know this achingly intimate music, you might be surprised to learn it was actually Shostakovich who wrote it, in 1957. I hear Chopin’s ghost in this; better yet, I hear Chopin remembered, and I think I know why.
The Shostakovich we know as the composer of fifteen imposing, often intense symphonies and string quartets, began his career both as a pianist and composer. His mother was his first teacher. He wrote his first piano pieces before he was 12. By age 13, the boy’s Chopin scores had become dog-eared from constant use.
It's 1927. The First International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Twenty-one-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich sits down to play. He had barely a month to prepare. Round after round goes by. The applause each time is thunderous. But he only earns an honorable mention. Too many Russians, say the judges. Shostavovich is stung.
But the immersion in Chopin’s music led Shostakovich to begin composing again. A set of piano miniatures; studies and even a nocturne. Later, a set of 24 Preludes — like Chopin’s, one for each key — and fugues. When Shostakovich concertized, he often performed Chopin’s piano concertos. Chopin made sense to Shostakovich, whose comments about the Poet of the Piano could just as well have been about the searing symphonist himself:
"No one who loves music can be indifferent towards Chopin […] because Chopin, like a true friend, speaks only the truth. His music contains unfeigned feelings, a dream of the future, and crystal-clear, fervid, exciting ideas. The soul of Chopin's music - the melody - is never artificial, contrived or schematic; it is born of life and genuine emotions - this is what gives it its power."