Concerto No 1 in A Minor

for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77

Shostakovich wrote his two violin concerti for his friend, master violinist David Oistrakh, who was very helpful to him in the writing of the solo parts. The First Violin Concerto, written in 1947-48, lay hidden in a desk drawer until its premier October 29, 1955, with the Leningrad Philharmonic and the dedicatee as soloist.

It was not safe to bring it out until two years after Stalin’s death. The 1946 Zhdanov Doctrine, named after his “Witchfinder General” Andrew Zhdanov, had stated that the post war world was divided in two camps: the imperialist United States and the democratic Soviet Union, and it included a thinly disguised warning: “The only conflict that is possible in the Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best.”

Although a decree on music was not specifically issued until February 10, 1948, Shostakovich knew that the meaning of the Zhadanov Doctrine would apply to his work; that “best” meant adherence to specific government cultural standards. And he also knew that his First Violin Concerto would not have been acceptable: it was too individualistic. Too complicated. Too novel. Too atonal. Too incomprehensible for the lowest denominator of Soviet music audiences to easily enjoy.

The decree was not limited to an artistic critique. It also meant direct persecution and possible expulsion to the Siberian Gulag and forced labor camps. The term GULAG was the acronym for Main Administration of Corrective labor Camps. It was easy to get a one-way ticket on the Trans-Siberian railroad during Stalin’s regime, and during his dictatorship, over a million people would lose their lives in exile to one of the camps. And Shostakovich and Stalin did not get along. The composer was suspect. In 1948 he was condemned for formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music, alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.

“Shostakovich’s First Violin concerto is a veritable “iron man” concerto, calling on everything in the violinists’ technical arsenal, as well as vast physical and emotional stamina.  Even Oistrakh begged the composer to give the opening of the finale to the orchestra so that ‘I can at least wipe the sweat off my brow’ after the daunting solo cadenza that concludes the third movement.”  (Program notes, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

There are four movements in Opus 77 (sometimes also called opus 99 after its publication in 1956.) At one time, Shostakovich noted that his concerto was “a symphony for solo violin and orchestra.”

The first movement is titled Nocturne, beginning in a low register, a slow pace, and producing a haunting atmosphere. The soloist begins with a long expansive melody which is based on the orchestra’s introduction, a part which seems to meditate on the introductory ideas. From time to time the bassoon offers contrapuntal commentary, and the winds offer complimentary color. The focus remains steadily on the violinist who is given biting, dissonant heavy discourse.  “Only in the central episode where the soft celesta chimes, does the music give way and there is a glimpse of lightness or freedom.” At the close, the opening eerie mood returns, continuing what Oistrakh called “suppression of feelings.”

The second movement, Scherzo, bounces out quickly from the winds, followed by a sassy, rough answer from the soloist, likened to “unruly vodka-fed folk dance.” Rhythms are brusk, crude, and uneven, set within frenetic tempi. There is nothing playful or happy herein; if anything, we find a sardonic parody of jollity.  For added impudence, Shostakovich inserts his own musical initials in the second section, (the tones D, E-flat, C, B) the first time he put this four-note pattern into his music: a ploy he would use in other future works as well.

The third movement, Andante, is a passacaglia, producing a set of nine variations over the repeated baseline pattern of seventeen measures. From time to time, this baseline is passed along to other parts of the orchestra, aside from the low strings and tuba, such as the English horn. At the close of the ninth variation, the orchestra freezes on a long-held F: preparing for the gigantic cadenza, which bridges to the finale.

The finale continues with wild abandon in a Burlesca marked allegro con brio.  A brisk tune moves relentlessly forward with heavy timpani accents, sometimes called a “kicking Stalin gopak.”  The soloist enters in a brilliant, fast-paced statement.  Some elements of Stravinsky’s Petrushka are also quoted, lending a celebratory element in what could be liked to a crazed Shrovetide festival. Dynamics remain loud most of the time; orchestra and soloist combine with frequent interactions, which each performing force seizes aggressively. The passacaglia theme makes another appearance, but this time with a fast-paced presto running below it. There is no let up in the inferno as the concerto ends in scorching conflagration.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

See all Program Notes

Program Notes