Program Notes

Concerto No. 1 in A minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 77(99)


BORN:  September 25, 1906. Saint Petersburg, Russia

DIED: August 9, 1975. Moscow

COMPOSED: July 1947 to March 1948, but it was not published until 1956, with revisions possibly having been effected in the interim

WORLD PREMIERE: October 9, 1955. David Oistrakh with Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic 

US PREMIERE: December 29, 1955. Oistrakh with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony 

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— December 1960. Leonid Kogan was soloist, Enrique Jordá conducted. MOST RECENT—October 2015. Christian Tetzlaff was soloist, Susanna Mälkki conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo (doubling 3rd flute), 2 oboes and English horn (doubling 3rd oboe), 2 clarinets and bass clarinet (doubling 3rd clarinet), 2 bassoons and contrabassoon (doubling 3rd bassoon), 4 horns, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, tambourine, xylophone, celesta, 2 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 36 mins

THE BACKSTORY Dmitri Shostakovich spent most of his career falling in and out of favor with the Communist authorities of the U.S.S.R. By the mid-1940s his official approval ratings had soared, plummeted, soared again, plummeted again, and soared anew. Then, in 1945, his stock crashed yet another time when his Ninth Symphony struck the bureaucrats as insufficiently reflecting the glory of Russia’s victory over the Nazis (not a single-handed war effort, but the Soviet government preferred not to complicate the issue). Shortly after that, the Soviet Union entered a period of brutal cultural policy—the Zhdanovshchina, named after the feared Central Committee secretary Andrey Zhdanov. It was he who, in 1934, had overseen the formal declaration of socialist realism as artistic policy. In 1946, with the war out of the way, he jump-started his campaign, pushing the argument that “any preaching of ‘art for art’s sake’ . . . is harmful to the interests of the Soviet people and the Soviet state.” He began by addressing the Soviet literary world, with the novelist Boris Pasternak, the poet Anna Akhmatova, and the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko coming in for especially severe condemnation. From there, he moved on to theater, then to film for particular condemnation.

In February 1948, music got its turn. Zhdanov and his operatives took aim at practically all Soviet composers who would be considered worthy in posterity, accusing them of “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music, alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.” Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, and Khachaturian were among the disgraced, and Shostakovich came in for particular disdain due to his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a Zhdanov bugbear. Shostakovich responded with a pathetic acknowledgement of guilt, and the next year he redeemed himself with The Song of the Forests, a nationalistic oratorio praising Stalin’s efforts at reforestation. It earned him a Stalin Prize backed by 100,000 rubles. Zhdanov had died by that time, but the policies he had declared continued to hold sway. After Stalin’s death, in 1953, the Soviet government stopped bullying artists quite so much, but by then Shostakovich had grown indelibly traumatized and paranoid. He retreated to a somewhat conservative creative stance and until 1960 wrote generally lighter fare, keeping his musical behavior in check as if he suspected the Soviet cultural thaw to be simply an illusion that might be reversed at any moment. In 1960, however, his Seventh and Eighth String Quartets launched a “late period” of productivity that would include many notable works of searing honesty.

He wrote his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1947-48, at which time he assigned it the opus number 77. The musicologist Boris Schwarz insisted that Shostakovich indicated that he wanted that opus number to remain attached to the concerto, since it accurately depicted where the piece fell chronologically in his output. But that desire has been generally ignored, with the result that Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is widely identified as his Opus 99, which corresponds to its date of belated publication. What occasioned the delay? The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich blamed it on the violinist David Oistrakh. “I despised Oistrakh,” he told the Shostakovich scholar Elizabeth Wilson, “because the brilliant violin concerto written for him in 1948 was allowed to lie around waiting for its first performance . . . To my mind this was shameful and cowardly.” The amount of finger-pointing that went on “after the fact” in Soviet musical circles was staggering and sometimes offensive. A more thorough account would not neglect to mention that the piece was completed during the prime years of Zhdanovshchina. That Shostakovich himself might well have had qualms about releasing such a composition at that moment must at least be entertained as a possibility. The fact is that Oistrakh provided considerable advice on the crafting of the solo part, did see the piece through its premiere, and, furthermore, was honored by the composer through the score’s dedication.

THE MUSIC In March 1948, Venyamin Basner attended Shostakovich’s last class at the Leningrad Conservatory, during which the composer “played for us for the very first time his newly finished violin concerto. . . Dmitri Dmitriyevich asked if I wouldn’t mind trying something out on the violin,” reported Basner. He continued:

Shaking like a leaf, I got my violin out. The very idea, that I should be the first violinist to attempt to play this difficult music, and, what’s more, to sight-read it in the presence of the composer! . . . I was of course present at the first performance of the First Violin Concerto, given by David Oistrakh in Leningrad in 1955. I attended all the rehearsals. The Concerto is a relentlessly hard, intense piece for the soloist. The difficult Scherzo is followed by the Passacaglia, then comes immediately the enormous cadenza which leads without a break into the Finale. The violinist is not given the chance to pause and take breath. I remember that even Oistrakh, a god for all violinists, asked Shostakovich to show mercy. “Dmitri Dmitriyevich, please consider letting the orchestra take over the first eight bars in the Finale so as to give me a break, then at least I can wipe the sweat off my brow.”

Immediately Dmitri Dmitriyevich said, “Of course, of course, why didn’t I think of it?” By the next day he had made the necessary correction by giving the first statement of the theme in the Finale to the orchestra. The violin soloist comes in with the passagework afterwards.

Even with that alteration to the Finale, Shostakovich gives his soloist little rest in this concerto. The piece is cast in four movements (slow-fast-slow-fast, broadly speaking), with the first and third movements dominating in length and mood. The work begins with an extended Nocturne, lyrical in its spun-out melody, meditative in its overall stillness. The tempo marking of Moderato does not really indicate a snail’s pace, and the solo line and various orchestral passages advance in flowing triplets; yet the feeling is of stasis. Midway through, the harp (playing harmonics) and the celesta (one of Shostakovich’s favorite instruments for special-effect eeriness), enunciate and develop a cryptic motif; they revisit it when the music dies away at the movement’s very end—the final, icy sonority being enriched by gentle punctuation from tam-tam and timpani.

The second movement reflects the mood of many a Shostakovich scherzo, which is to say that its humor is more sardonic than rib-tickling. The violin slashes at its themes early on, before spilling into a folkish danse macabre. Woodwinds are prominent in the orchestra here, sometimes in unusual combinations, as when flute and bass clarinet serve as the soloist’s only companions for the first twenty-nine measures. In the third movement, a passacaglia with nine variations, it is the horns that first define the atmosphere of solemn grandeur before ceding to the funereal, ever-processing chorale of the other winds. The movement ends in an immense cadenza for the soloist, which builds from mournfulness into abandon, recalling melodies from earlier in the concerto. The cadenza leads without a break to the Finale (where Shostakovich re-orchestrated the opening per Oistrakh’s request), which that violinist characterized as “a joyous folk party, [with] even the bagpipes of traveling musicians,” to which several passages of whining harmonies seem to allude before the piece reaches its boisterous end. —James M. Keller

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