Bee3 VC

Severance Hall
November 7 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

November 8 – Friday at 8:00 p.m. 
November 9 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 
November 10 – Sunday at 3:00 p.m.

Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Opus 77

Dmitri Shostakovich  (1906-1975)
composed 1945-48, revised 1955

At a Glance

Shostakovich wrote his first violin concerto in 1945-48, but kept the score private.   He revised it slightly in 1955 (after Stalin’s death in 1953).  The work was premiered on October 29, 1955, by the Leningrad Philharmonic with violinist David Oistrakh.  It was originally published as Opus 99 to disguise that it had been written earlier during a period when the composer was officially under censure by the Soviet government; the original Opus 77 number was later restored.

This work runs about 35 minutes in performance.  Shostakovich scored it for 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 3 oboes and english horn, 3 clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, tuba, timpani, percussion (tambourine, tam-tam, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra first presented this concerto as part of the 1984 Blossom Music Festival, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Boris Belkin as the soloist.  It has been played a number of times since then, most recently in performances at Severance Hall in November 2015, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda with violinist Leonidas Kovakos.

About the Music

If any single trait can be said to run through all of Shostakovich’s works, it is compassion.  Empathy for the dispossessed and defenseless, and rage at their oppressors, animates much of his music — perhaps all of it, as many listeners hear a note of parody even in his pompous “Stalinist” film scores and cantatas.  During his life, he made it plain that war and the victims of war were the subjects of many of his works, and it was an open secret that his interest in Jewish music was spurred by Russian anti-Semitism.  Today, as accounts of his life and words continue to multiply, it is increasingly apparent that this often-criticized, often-rehabilitated Soviet composer considered nearly every Soviet citizen, including himself, a victim of oppression.

It’s no accident that George Orwell’s nightmarish satire of totalitarianism 1984 was written in 1948, when what little information that leaked out of the Soviet Union revealed a society slipping deeper into paranoia, as the aging Stalin desperately tightened his grip on power.  Since one of the dictator’s ploys was to whip up popular sentiment against Jews, Shostakovich would have been taking his life in his hands if he had so much as said in public that he was working on a song cycle called From Jewish Folk Poetry, or a violin concerto inspired by a great Russian Jewish violinist, David Oistrakh.  In fact, these works weren’t performed in public until after Stalin’s death in 1953, and even then the First Violin Concerto’s opus number had to be changed from 77 to 99 to disguise its date of composition.

In so much Russian music — from Rimsky-Korsakov to Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev — imagery of the night means soft breezes, moonlight, and eroticism.  Not so in this concerto’s opening Nocturne.  After cellos and basses begin the work with a tortuous solo line (anticipating the repeating bass of the third movement’s passacaglia), depression and anxiety haunt the soloist’s somber monologue.  The orchestral background, dark-colored and harmonically slow-moving, is painted with the deep timbres of contrabassoon, bass clarinet, and string bass; the tortuous theme appears there often, struggling with its chains.  The cool, impassive sound of a celesta curls icy fingers around the violin melody at mid-movement and echoes the tortuous theme at the very end.

The unbearable tension of the Nocturne finds a spasm of release in the sarcastic Scherzo.  Ian MacDonald, in his book The New Shostakovich, heard in this movement “the composer, beset by fools and knaves, scorned by his inferiors, and forced to demean himself with fatuous articles and speeches.”  Certainly the composer’s personal motif, the notes D, E-flat, C, B (in German notation, the notes D-S-C-H, standing for D. Schostakowitsch) makes the first of many appearances in his works here, barked out, loud and clear, by the soloist in the second section.  The “fools and knaves” emit vulgar burps on the same deep instruments that created the oppressive atmosphere of the Nocturne.  For the soloist, the fiddling style of Jewish bands in Eastern Europe alternates with phrases of deliberate banality in a witch’s brew of vitality, anguish, and fury.  This music dances, but on a chain.

The Passacaglia movement opens in an atmosphere of imperial Stalinist pomp, with horns and timpani pounding out menacing fanfares over the stark, angular ground bass.  As in any passacaglia, the bass persists, repeating throughout the piece; here it may represent the implacable state, deaf to the eloquent pleas of the solo violin.  In this context, it is a chilling moment when, at the movement’s climax, the violin itself takes up the bass theme in bare, harsh-sounding octaves.  Has the composer learned to love Big Brother?  The rest of the movement is one long, disconsolate diminuendo, at the end of which the violin’s melody breaks into scattered fragments, in the manner of the funeral march in Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.  

From his teacher Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Shostakovich borrowed the idea of linking the last two movements by means of a meditative solo cadenza.  Here the violin begins by trying on borrowed clothes — the menacing fanfare that began the Passacaglia — but soon the figuration suggests the D-S-C-H motif, and folkdance rhythms invigorate the music, until the violin is shouting out the composer’s motif in slashing, impudent chords.  As the cadenza reaches a peak of excitement, the orchestra bursts into a sassy dance, beginning with some klezmer-style riffs for the solo violin and clarinet.  Burlesca means simply a rustic dance, but in this sparkling rondo (no more gloom from the bass instruments) there are more references than ever to Jewish scales and melodies.  Revenge is sweet as the once-terrifying Passacaglia bass is handed over to xylophone and flute — and later to the soloist and to the horns — for mockery and derision.  

David Wright © 2019

David Wright lives in New Jersey and writes about music.  He previously served as program annotator for the New York Philharmonic.