The Kennedy Center

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

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Richard Freed

The dual opus number affixed to this work is an unusual reminder of the difficult time in which Shostakovich composed it. In February 1948 Andrei Zhdanov, Joseph Stalin's spokesman for cultural matters, issued a vicious denunciation of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and several other prominent composers, charging them with the sin of "formalism" and plunging the Soviet musical community into a period of darkness that ended only with Stalin's death five years later. Shostakovich was just then completing his Violin Concerto, to which he assigned the opus number 77, but, (even though Zhdanov himself died barely six months after issuing his denunciations) he put the score away to await a more propitious time, and only with the beginning of the "thaw" that followed Stalin's death did he bring it out. He revised the score a bit in 1955; the premiere was given in Leningrad on October 29 of that year by the illustrious violinist David Oistrakh, and published as Op. 99.

Several of the other works Shostakovich composed or conceived during those grim years 1948-1953 were treated with similar prudence. Among them were the Tenth Symphony (whose scherzo the composer identified as "a portrait of Stalin"), the Fourth String Quartet, and the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, all in one respect or another pivotal works for him. Toward the end of his life he decided to restore the original opus number to the Concerto in order to establish the work's true chronology, while retaining the later number as well, to register the not-too-subtle point of the process of delay just outlined here and invite those who might regard his big works as "secret chronicles" of Soviet life to unleash their speculations about what he had felt necessary for the preservation of his creativity?and for his own survival.

The Concerto is drawn to the broad proportions of such predecessors as the violin concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, but it is in four movements rather than the usual three (as Brahms had actually intended for his own concerto at first), resembling the form of a symphony more than a concerto, and quite specifically the somewhat unorthodox layout characteristic of Shostakovich's own symphonies. The opening movement is not a heroic allegro, but a slowich Nocturne. The next is a scherzo, and the two last are respectively a Passacaglia and Burlesca, connected by a cadenza of unusual proportions.
Boris Schwarz, who was not only our leading scholar in the field of Soviet music, but was himself a violinist and author of a book on his instrument and its legendary champions, wrote of the Concerto's "exciting contrasts":

[T]he Nocturne is contemplative and ethereal, the Scherzo is sparkling, with a rough-hewn middle section suggesting a Jewish folk dance. Since the Concerto was composed at almost the same time as the cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, it may well be that Shostakovich's imagination veered in that direction. [David Oistrakh, who wrote of the work's difficulty, described the Scherzo as "evil, demonic, prickly," and noted how the very light use of the orchestral violins in this movement enables the solo instrument to stand out more vividly in its discourse with the woodwinds.?RF] There follows a Passacaglia, one of Shostakovich's favorite compositional devices, a movement of lapidary grandeur, while the final Burlesca has a devil-may-care abandon. The Concerto does not aim at easy effectiveness; there are no memorable, ingratiating melodies nor virtuoso pyrotechnics designed for immediate audience response. Just as its first performer, David Oistrakh, admitted that he had to "live with" the work for some time until he penetrated its meaning, so the listener must exert some patience and intellectual effort to grasp its full message.

(From Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1981, by Boris Schwarz, published by Indiana University Press. Copyright 1972 and 1982 by Boris Schwarz)