SHOSTAKOVICH Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, op. 99

by Walter Simmons



Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, op. 99

  • I. Nocturne: Moderato
  • II. Scherzo: Allegro
  • III. Passacaglia: Andante
  • IV. Burlesca: Allegro con brio

Unlike many of his compatriots in the arts, Dmitri Shostakovich did not emigrate from the Soviet Union, but chose to remain there his entire life. Recognized as the leading Soviet composer, as well as one of the twentieth century’s most important musical creators, he left a body of work that demonstrates the continuing viability of such traditional musical genres as the symphony, the string quartet, and the concerto.

But against the backdrop of his great international reputation, his own life represented a profound compromise — musically as well as morally. For in order to protect himself and his family in a society in which his own eminence made him especially vulnerable to attack, he was forced to yield to continual pressure that he adopt artistic principles rooted in political objectives and suppress any personal artistic impulses that deviated from these principles. Thus accepting the role of Soviet artist, he numbly mouthed platitudes he did not believe, and resignedly composed much empty patriotic music that he loathed. At the same time, he developed a personal code–a double language through which he could express himself, seeming to say one thing while meaning another. He conveyed these deliberate ambiguities through subtle incongruities and sarcastic implications that are not always easy to decipher, thus contributing to much of the confusion and ambivalence that has always surrounded  Shostakovich’s musical reputation.

Such “code languages” are common among oppressed peoples, such as American blacks and Jews throughout history. Itis probably his awareness of this that accounted for Shostakovich’s great sense of kinship with the Jews and for his use of Jewish motifs as important symbols in his music. In his memoirs, Testimony, he is quoted as saying, “Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me … It’s almost always laughter through tears. This quality … is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music.”

It is illuminating to bear these thoughts in mind while considering Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, one of his most important and deeply profound works and a concerto that stands today among the masterpieces of the violin repertoire. The late 1940s was one of Shostakovich’s most difficult periods, a time when he was enjoying unprecedented international celebrity while being subjected to official condemnation at home, a time when his music was played everywhere in the world but in Russia, where his colleagues denounced him to their advantage. During this period Shostakovich kept his most serious works to himself, while releasing only the safest sort of rousing, patriotic bluster.

Thus, though the First Violin Concerto was completed in 1948, it was not performed until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, when it was introduced by David Oistrakh, to whom it was dedicated. The orchestration of the work is somewhat unusual, omitting trumpets and trombones, while featuring the celesta and xylophone prominently. This lends a particular delicacy and transparency to the overall sonority. In four movements, rather than the typical three, the concerto resembles a symphony in many ways, especially in its predominantly serious mood. The first movement is entitled Nocturne, and unfolds like a brooding, hauntingly contemplative soliloquy.

This is followed by a scherzo movement. Despite an initially jocular appearance, this movement builds in intensity to a wild and bitter dance with a distinctly Jewish flavor, recalling the quotation cited above. This movement also includes a motif derived from Shostakovich’s own name–a sort of musical signature that appeared in many of his most intimate compositions. The scherzo is followed by another slow movement–a passacaglia, a traditional form associated with the most solemn and profound type of expression. One of Shostakovich’s most deeply beautiful movements, it leads directly to an extended cadenza. Rather than providing merely the expected exhibition of virtuosity, this cadenza maintains the level of intensity while offering a thorough development of the concerto’s motivic material. The cadenza then leads directly into the finale, a raucous Burlesca that parallels the sardonic quality of the scherzo. Throughout the work there is a tense duality between a deeply personal emotional expression and an obligatory sense of cheerfulness, the latter always undercut by a fierce sense of bitterness. This is the central issue in the work of Shostakovich.