Tag Archives: Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major

the Water Music; thoughts about death


Last night, on December 2, 2017, I attended a concert by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York.

The concert began with Handel’s Water Music Suite No. 2 in D Major.

It is good when hearing a musical composition such as the Water Music to see the actual players and how they are arranged on the stage. The horn player — essential to the piece — was at the rear, almost hidden behind the other musicians. The same players, pretty much, in the same arrangement, must have been performing on a barge in the first performance of the Water Music on July 17, 1717. The piece came through so strongly during last night’s performance, so convincingly, just as it must have three hundred years ago.

There was no conductor!



The second work on the program was Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major. It is the first of two cello concertos that Shostakovich composed for the great Soviet cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. What impresses me most, as shown in this work, is the “drive” and energy and the “forward motion” of Shostakovich’s music, which in effect propels the listener along.

The first movement opens with and is built upon a four-note motif from which the piece evolves, just as is the case with Beethoven’s fifth symphony, which opens with a famous four-note motif. It is quite likely that Shostakovich had Beethoven in mind. He is supremely innovative, very modern and often avant-garde, yet at the same time he is, paradoxically, very mindful of composers of the past.

I did not realize that Shostakovich’s two cello concertos were written so late in his career. The Cello Concerto No. 1 was first performed in 1959.



I have been reading a book about Walt Whitman and his views of death as revealed in his poetry: So Long!: Walt Whitman’s Poetry of Death by Harold Aspiz.

I have been reading the book for several weeks — it seems like I’m never going to finish it.

It often takes me a long time to complete books. I plod along, sometimes reading only a page or two before stopping. I mull over passages and often stop to read them a second or third time and digest them after chewing over a passage and pausing to think.



Whitman’s views were continually evolving. He tried to reconcile them. He feared death. He often pretended not to, said (not ingenuously) that he welcomed it.

The author of the book about Whitman I am reading, Harold Aspiz, states:

Although he was acquainted with many of the scientific and religious movements of his age, Whitman could not accept the prevailing secular theories concerning death or those advocated by established religion. He viewed death as an eternal and benign mystery. … At times his poems approach death gladly, as if to embrace it; at times they treat it quizzically, revealing an uncertainty about his own assumptions.

I fear death. I don’t think about it all the time, but I fear it.

I was thinking during the concert of Handel in this connection, and by extension, of all art. It seems to be one way to transcend death, to become “immortal,” to live beyond one’s physical demise. The Water Music has not died, is not desiccated; it lives on in our hearing.

But there other ways to live on: in people’s memories.

Can you suggest other ways? It would be a comfort to be able to contemplate them.



There were over 600 students in the balcony, attending the concert free as guests of the orchestra. They clapped between each movement, a no-no. I forgive them!


— Roger W. Smith

   December 3, 2017