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Shostakovich met Tatyana Glivenko in 1923, when he was sixteen, while recuperating from tuberculosis at a Crimean sanatorium. His sister Mariya Shostakovich, who accompanied her brother on this trip, wrote home to her mother: “Mitya (Dmitri) has grown, got a suntan, is cheerful and has fallen in love. This is now clear to me. The girl in question is a bit strange, a flirt, and I don’t like her; but then it is hard to please your sister in such matters.” Upon his return to Leningrad from the sanatorium, Shostakovich set about writing his First Piano Trio (or Poème, as he originally titled it), which he dedicated to Tatyana. The composer continued this long distance relationship and thought about marrying her for about ten years, until she married someone else and had children.

The composer was only 17 when he wrote the Trio and it definitely bears the signs of a student work – the rambling form, the Romantic spirit mixed with chromatic moments and piano accompaniment that recalls Impressionism, the distinct influences of Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Glazunov. However, there are plenty of hints in the piece of the late Shostakovich we all know, hints that did not please all of his instructors. One of Shostakovich’s professors in the conservatory expressed his displeasure with the young composer’s “obsession with the Grotesque,” a comment which Shostakovich apparently took with some satisfaction.

The financial situation of the family had forced Dmitri to take a job as a pianist at a cinema, where he had to improvise a live piano score for the film showings. Perhaps this nighttime job influenced in part the form and surreal sudden changes of mood and texture of the Piano Trio; we cannot know for sure. What we know is that Shostakovich, together with a couple of friends, learned the piece by performing it, or one would say – rehearsing it, as an accompaniment to some films.

In 1924, Shostakovich’s dissatisfaction with the limitations of the Leningrad Conservatory’s formal teaching methods reached a high point and he seriously considered a transfer to the Moscow Conservatory. There he had found many musician friends, sympathetic and supportive to him and his musical needs. The young composer was able to arrange an audition at the Moscow Conservatory, where he performed some of his cello pieces and the Piano Trio with some friends who, in his own words “played disgustingly… but the result was completely unexpected. They decided to regard the Trio as my sonata form piece, and immediately I was accepted on the free composition course… In Leningrad they would never have accepted the Trio as my sonata form test piece. What stupid formalists.”

Performer-composer Milen Kirov teaches at Chapman University and California Institute of the Arts, and maintains a busy composing and performing schedule. For more information, please visit milenkirov.net.