About this work
Shostakovich's Piano Sonata No. 1 followed on the heels of his tremendously successful First Symphony (premiered on May 12, 1926). Begun while vacationing on the Black Sea with his girlfriend Tatyana Glivenko in August of that year and finished in Leningrad on October 20, the sonata is one of the most brutal and modernist works Shostakovich ever composed. The day he completed it, he played it for some of his friends at the Leningrad Conservatory who reported seeing blood on the keys after he was done; the young composer's teacher, Maximilian Steinberg, disapproved strongly, and claimed to be astounded that Shostakovich could make sense of the work himself.
The power of Shostakovich's performance of the work (Shostakovich was a formidable pianist whose repertoire included Liszt's B Minor Sonata and Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata), however, convinced most non-believers. As one of his contemporaries remarked, "The composer was unusually severe, very concentrated, and played with faultless clarity...He was not simply playing, he seemed to be casting spells and imposing his will on us" (Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Elizabeth Wilson. p. 72).
Although structurally nothing like the sonatas of any previous composer, Shostakovich's sonata is still clearly formed and cogently argued. Built around the tonal opposition of C and F sharp and using texture rather than themes as a means to articulate form, the sonata acutely resembles Shostakovich's Second Symphony ("To October") of six months later. In fact, some of Shostakovich's contemporaries gave the work the similar subtitle, "October Symphony," thereby linking it with the symphony forever. Shostakovich, however, denied ever approving the use of the subtitle.