Cello Concerto No. 2 (Shostakovich)

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The Cello Concerto No. 2, Opus 126, was written by Dmitri Shostakovich in the spring of 1966 in the Crimea. Like the first concerto, it was written for Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the premiere in Moscow under Yevgeny Svetlanov on 25 September 1966 at the composer's 60th birthday concert. Sometimes the concerto is listed as being in the key of G, but the score gives no such indication.

Along with the Eleventh String Quartet, the Preface to the Complete Works, and the Seven Romances on Texts by Alexander Blok, the Second Cello Concerto signaled the beginning of Shostakovich's late period style.


Like the Fourth Symphony and Ninth String Quartet before it and the Fifteenth Symphony after it, the Second Cello Concerto gave Shostakovich some problems in the compositional stages. The opening Largo, for example, was originally conceived to be the start of a new symphony. Shostakovich later abandoned this idea, however, and reworked this movement into its present form. The finale also gave the composer considerable trouble. He confessed to Mstislav Rostropovich, the concerto's dedicatee, that he had a finale completely written out but decided to scrap that version and supplant it with the one we know today because he felt that his original finale was weak. Shostakovich also allowed Rostropovich to make a few changes to the concerto's cadenzas.


The concerto is scored for solo cello, one piccolo, one flute, two oboes, two clarinets (each doubling B-flat and A), two bassoons, contrabassoon (doubling 3rd bassoon), two horns, timpani, slapstick, wood block, tom-tom, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, xylophone, two harps (always in unison as indicated on the score), and strings.

The concerto lasts around 35 minutes and has three movements:

  1. Largo
  2. Allegretto
  3. Allegretto


First movement

The first movement begins in a dark and introspective mood, interrupted by the cadenza before the opening theme returns. The movement then escalates with a series of interjections by the xylophone. This is notable for its mocking and almost uncertain sound; the aggressive taps of the xylophone are accompanied by dark flute and cello undertones. The exchanges continue until the cello leads the orchestra into an aggressive climax; flutes drive the other instruments into a spiralling set of tone shifts, while the brass proclaim long, lonely notes beneath. The climactic moment is concluded by a sharp and sudden boom of the drum, which continues to pulse repeatedly for a short while after. The Largo closes softly.

Second movement

The second movement is based on a theme from an Odessa street song, Bubliki, kupitye, bubliki (Buy My Bread Rolls).

Third movement

The finale begins with French horn fanfares, terminated by a sudden interjection of the tambourine and cello solo. The Allegretto then moves through lyric, march and dance sections. The movement builds in intensity, rising with an exchange of cello bursts countered by the snare drum, eventually developing into a furious climax, first restating the fanfare theme, then reverting to a grotesque variation of the Odessa theme. The whip is cracked twice during the climax, first unexpectedly, then ending the tutti. The cello then revisits the dance-like statement from earlier in the movement. This is the only one of Shostakovich's six concertos to end quietly; it is concluded with an eerie exchange of the cello and woodblock, and draws to a low close.

The concerto is logically formed. Although it makes great use of unusual instruments (common in 20th century work as well as in Shostakovich's) and has rather irregular structure, the themes are evenly distributed and played in equal measures. This relative equality of mention is drastically different from the aggressive repetition of the DSCH motif in the First Cello Concerto, and this characteristic proves to be an important aspect of Shostakovich's later period.


Recordings of this work include the following: