Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, op. 99

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            On no other major recent composer has more ink been spilt attempting to understand what thought processes and motivations reveal the true self than that on Shostakovich.  The evidence is fought over, sifted, and re-sifted to build the case that he was a musically-gifted, but incredibly naïve, tool of the worst instincts of Stalinism.  Or, on the other hand, that he was a musically-gifted, but wondrously deceptive, resident critic of the terrors of Soviet Communism.  Even—something of both, for     Shostakovich left a maddeningly ambiguous record of his inner thoughts.

            His artistic life is a case study in the tragic difficulty of being true to one’s own sense of artistic integrity and vision, while balancing that with the practical necessity of having any opportunity to exist at all--both as an artist, or even as a human being--in an oppressive totalitarian society.  Accordingly, his compositions varied in their styles over the decades.  Those of his early maturity were composed under the daily fear of his vanishing in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s; during the “Great Patriotic War” with the Nazi government, the national effort allowed artists a bit more latitude in their expressions.  But the clamp down after the war produced understandable, but confusingly coöperative “artistic confessions” of his lack of sufficient sensitivity to collectivist politics.  Thus, his long line of fifteen symphonies is marked by a few embarrassingly “populist” potboilers, as well as by his immortal masterpieces

            Shostakovich was equally capable of writing satirical compositions that scathingly excoriate the excesses and flaws of Western Democracies, as well as works of dark and profound passion that lament the fundamental tragedies of universal human experience.   It is tempting for those who enjoy easy freedoms of artistic expression to hold others from other times to a high moral standard and to adjure them to not “sell out” their integrity.  But few major composers have endured such political and artistic oppression, as did Shostakovich.

            Which brings us to his first violin concerto.  The impressive gifts of the great Russian violinist, David Oistrakh, led Shostakovich to begin the composition of the concerto in Summer 1947, while in the meantime, epic political events were brewing.  Andrey Zhdanov, head of state affairs for the arts, was orchestrating a campaign to repress those artists who were not sufficiently toeing the Stalinist line for accessible music for the proletariat.  The storm erupted in January 1945, when Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and others more or less had their non-conformist compositions proscribed.  Consequently, the violin concerto went into what Shostakovich called “the drawer” – a metaphor for works that were dangerously out of political fashion, and which he kept to himself.   After Stalin’s death in March 1953, the concerto and other great works came out of “the drawer,” and musical posterity is much the richer.   The violin concerto is dedicated to Oistrakh; he collaborated with some revisions and played the première with the Leningrad Philharmonic in October 1955.

            Cast in four movements, rather than the typical three, it is a dark, serious, and weighty affair, and clearly symphonic in both scope and composition.  Bearing little resemblance to violin concertos that feature memorable melodies and an emphasis upon showy virtuosity, Shostakovich’s work is a formidable intellectual challenge as well a musical one—and for the soloist, it must be said, a physical one, as well.  The first movement, “Nocturne,” is, of course, an unusual way to begin a concerto, and the mood is more than crepuscular--it is a study in pessimistic reflections at midnight.  The orchestra stays well out of the way, yet provides a backdrop of somber dark, rich colors as the soloist relentlessly weaves a weft of tentative, searching melodic lines that pose questions, but no answers.   Some have aptly compared it with the sad, elegiac first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto—a reflection of the death and destruction of WWI.

            Most symphonies have a scherzo as an inner movement, and in this concerto Shostakovich has written one that is obviously related to the common trope of a “dæmonic,” “satanic,” or “devil’s” violin.  This image goes back to the Middle Ages, and has been common coin in musical compositions since the nineteenth century.  The strings mostly retire here, as the soloist engages with the unusual colors in the threatening woodwinds.  Here, as in the last movement, there is a hint of Jewish scales and melody—but only a hint.   Shostakovich about this time had composed other compositions on specifically Jewish themes as a counter to anti-Semitism, and that interest surfaces here, as well.  The composer’s famed mastery of musical sarcasm pervades the frenetic virtuosity.

            The third movement—clearly a dirge--is a case in point as a target for Stalin’s apparatchiks, ever vigilant for the artistic sin of “formalism”—that is abstract music without palpable reference to the glories of collectivism.  It is a passacaglia, a centuries old technique that uses a repeating bass line (think of the Pachelbel canon) to generate structure.  Here, the bass line is seventeen bars long, repeated nine times, with Shostakovich’s skill as an imaginative orchestrator coming to the fore.  Each repetition of the bass theme is clothed in new orchestra colors, building into heart-rending intensity with each iteration.  Finally, when there seems to be nowhere else to go in this stress and passion, the soloist plunges into a challenging cadenza of unprecedented power, length, and drama.   It practically takes on the significance of a fifth movement, and eventually takes us right into the last movement, Burlesca

            It's a riotous, wild affair, threatening to careen out of control, with familiar elements of Shostakovich’s style propelling us along:  Russian dancing and drinking, Jewish folksongs, vicious social parody, among others.   As this vital composition drives to a smashing conclusion, the audience will perhaps be as exhausted as the orchestra and soloist.  Notwithstanding his putative, occasional acquiescence to the oppressive Soviet state, the Violin Concerto, along with its peers, is eloquent testimony to the genius of the real Dimitri Shostakovich.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2021 William E. Runyan