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Dmitri Shostakovich
Violin Concerto No. 1

Dmitri Shostakovich

(Born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1906; died in Moscow in 1975)

Violin Concerto No. 1, A minor, Op. 77/99

  1. Nocturne – Moderato
  2. Scherzo – Allegro
  3. Passacaglia – Andante – Cadenza
  4. Burlesque – Allegro con brio

In 1948, in the midst of completing his now beloved Violin Concerto No. 1, political favor turned viciously against Shostakovich and others, through a series of Party dictates.  Artistically, the most brutal was the enforcement of the 1946 “Zhadnov decree.”  These new standards were a power and control technique – they demanded the government’s complete management over artistic output, and singled out Shostakovich as having violated Party Socialist goals with “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music.”  Along with many other artists, the once “darling composer” of the State was made to suffer public humiliation.  Stalin’s continued bullying of artists left its effects on artists like Shostakovich, even long after the dictator’s death in 1953.  By the end of his life, as friend and composer Kristopf Meyer said, these traumas had left Shostakovich’s face “a bag of tics and grimaces.”

But the worst immediate repercussion of the 1948 Zhadnov shamings was Shostakovich’s being fired as Professor at the Moscow Conservatory.  Without that job, Shostakovich soon had to resort to writing music for theatre and films (already screened by the censors) to pay the rent, and lightweight political propaganda works to curry at least a little favor back with the Party.  Certainly, his compositional output was terrifically challenged – a heavy and sardonic work like his Violin Concerto wouldn’t have found any official friends in the thick of that political disgrace.  But Shostakovich didn’t stop writing more serious art music entirely, instead, writing “music for the desk drawer” that kept his musical intellect and skills sharp, but which had to wait for performance.  And this was the drawer that became the home of the Concerto until 1955, after Stalin had died, and politics had cooled down for Shostakovich.

The Concerto was dedicated to, and first performed by, the great Ukrainian violin virtuoso David Oistrakh.  When the work was finally presented in 1955, it received a new catalog number, Op. 99, and had since undergone a few revision suggestions from Oistrakh.  Despite the slight changes, Shostakovich wished that the work remain as Op. 77 to place it in the correct chronological order of his output – but “99” seemed to linger with it its publication.  Today, the audience may see either opus number, or even “77/99.”

The Concerto is first and foremost a herculean exhibition of musicianship for the soloist.  Even Oistrakh, who was considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th C., asked Shostakovich to allow a break for “the violinist to be able to wipe his brow.”  The soloist is nearly constantly playing, and the solo part runs a huge gamut of emotions – most extraordinarily, though, is the feeling of vulnerability.  This is a modern piece, a work of sadness, and loneliness, absurdity, humor and madness.  And hauntingly beautiful.

The first movement is titled by Shostakovich a “Nocturne,” not in the Romantic sense but in the feel of emptiness that accompanies night, and the darkness that can trouble the soul.  In the beginning we hear the bass instruments in their low registers.  This theme feels as though it’s in slow motion, darkly colored, searching, without any particular tonal center.  The violin soon joins in.  There is no bravura with it, just a lone voice, singing, sounding somewhat haunted, also wandering.  The entire movement, in fact, will carry on in this way, certainly with variety of colors and hues and additional themes, but the effect will consistently remain chilling and static.  This, in part, is the great challenge for the soloist.  The soloist must hold our attention and keep leading us through the movement; must make us hear its lone voice singing into the darkness.  Indeed, though the solo part isn’t especially tuneful, it is deeply lyrical, beautiful in the way that moonlight gets refracted through water.  Several moments make the hair raise on our necks:  Listen especially for the entrance of the solo bassoon after about a minute, lending a brief moment of a hopeful duet with the soloist, only to die away.  The ending, too, is spinetingling, as the music slips away, and the harp and celesta (a keyboard instrument that strikes metal plates instead of strings) play driftingly in the stratosphere, giving over at last to one of the few non-dissonant chords in the movement.

The second movement scherzo is wildly different.  Bracingly fast, the scherzo evokes a complex array of moods: among them anger, bumbling, sneering, abandon.  The soloist plays immediately with octaves evoking the slashing of a knife.   At the beginning, a flute and bass clarinet are the soloist’s only accompaniment for an extended period, and during the entire movement, Shostakovich explores a myriad of colors in the winds.  A wild moment arrives at about one minute, when the soloist plays a set of upward glissandi (sliding the note upward on the fret board), as though steam is escaping.  In another half-minute, listen for the violin playing octaves, in what will sound, perhaps, like the first melodic motive in the movement – this is Shostakovich’s musical signature: D-S-C-H (the notes D, Eb, C, and B), the German/English spelling of his first initial and the first three letters of his last name, but here, transposed a little higher.  This is likely the first time Shostakovich would use this motive, and it will begin to pervade his later works more and more (particularly, in his Eighth Quartet and his Tenth Symphony).  The reasons for its first appearance here are unclear, but clearly deliberate.   The music and the soloist soon lead us into a sort of danse macabre to the close.

The addition of a middle third movement here is an unconventional element in the concerto structure, especially that it is a passacaglia.  Passacaglias were first used in the Baroque Era and are typically a set of variations based on a repeating bass line.  This is indeed how Shostakovich uses it here, and the movement is essentially the first uninterrupted moment of solid, tonal harmony to our ears.  That bass line begins with the String basses, cellos, and timpani, highlighted by blazing horns (à la Tchaikovsky’s opening “Fate” motive in his Fourth Symphony) lasting 17 bars.  This opening is powerful and almost frightening – like the slow advance of something unstoppable and colossal.  The first variation features the winds in a gorgeous chorale-prelude, and we feel that Shostakovich has perhaps tamed the unstoppable with beauty.  The second variation introduces the solo violin with the sweetest, most content moment of the Concerto.  A poignant, and heroic, moment arrives at about 5:30 minutes after the start, when, amidst full orchestral strings and tuba, the violin takes for itself the repeated bass line theme and plays it in octaves.  Soon, the violin takes on the powerful horn-call triplets from the opening of the movement, and turns them into whimpers – this, in preparation for an extended cadenza.

Without a break, the soloist wanders, it seems, into No-Man’s land, and begins a 4:30 minute cadenza.  At its start, the violin is soft and seems terribly vulnerable, slowly drifting out of the themes from the passacaglia.  Soon, the soloist’s song sounds as though it’s trying to find its way in an unknown world.  But in increments, fury takes hold, and we then behold one of the most extraordinary shows of virtuosity and musicianship in any cadenza.  As its vigor begins to crackle with electricity, the music dives into the final movement (and incidentally, this is where Oistrakh asked Shostakovich to give the violinist a break to “wipe his brow”).

The finale to this great Concerto is subtitled “Burlesque,” which for Shostakovich likely meant exaggerated, frantic, and a little bit of a humorous parody (not a strip tease, though that would not have been out of character for Shostakovich, either).  The crazy-fast tempo itself surely gives the feel of exaggeration and franticness, and it seems that the parody may be about the typical kind of happy ending for Concertos – music of high spirits and solving all problems that came in the music before.  What Shostakovich does instead is turn the finale into a train heading for what might be derailment.  And it is wildly fun.  Oistrakh said he felt it to be “a joyous folk party, [with] even the bagpipes of traveling musicians.”  Others called it a “kicking-Stalin gopak” (gopak is a rustic Russian dance) – given that, one can see why it was prudent that Shostakovich let the premiere wait.  Listen for those Oistrakh bagpipes at about two minutes into the movement, with open interval drones in the horns, and whining, reedy winds above.  Also, listen for a marvelous moment about one minute after the “bagpipes,” when Shostakovich creates a canon (a melody which is overlayed by its repetition in another instrument) of the passacaglia theme, beginning in the clarinets and mirrored in overlap by solo horn one bar later.  All the while, save for the first bars of “rest” for the soloist, the violin is playing almost constantly with virtuosity and breathlessness.  The final section marked Prestissimo (extremely fast) is one of Shostakovich’s most exhilarating endings.

Program notes © Max Derrickson