Violin Concerto No. 1 (Shostakovich)
The Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Opus 77, was originally written by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1947–48. He was still working on the piece at the time of the Zhdanov decree, and in the period following the composer's denunciation it could not be performed. In the time between the work's initial completion and the first performance, the composer and its dedicatee, David Oistrakh, worked on a number of revisions. The concerto was finally premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky on 29 October 1955. It was well received, Oistrakh remarking on the "depth of its artistic content" and describing the violin part as a "pithy 'Shakespearian' role".
Oistrakh characterised the first movement Nocturne as "a suppression of feelings", and the second movement Scherzo as "demoniac". The Scherzo is also notable for an appearance by the DSCH motif—a motif representing Shostakovich himself that recurs in many of the composer's works. Boris Schwarz (Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1972) commented on the Passacaglia's "lapidary grandeur" and the Burlesque's "devil-may-care abandonment".
The concerto lasts around 35 minutes and comprises four movements, with a cadenza linking the final two:
- Nocturne: Moderato – a semi-homage to the first movement of Elgar's Cello Concerto.
- Scherzo: Allegro – demonic dance. The DSCH motif can be heard in the background at times, with a final appearance near the end in the solo violin part.
- Passacaglia: Andante – Cadenza (attacca) – utilizes Beethoven's fate motif, incorporating it into the pre-burlesque cadenza. The DSCH motif is incorporated into a set of chords in the cadenza.
- Burlesque: Allegro con brio – Presto – the theme in the solo violin's entrance resembles that of the solo flute's entrance in Stravinsky's Petrouchka.
The work is scored for solo violin, three flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), three oboes, cor anglais, three clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, tuba, timpani, tambourine, tam-tam, xylophone, celesta, two harps, and strings. Unusually, the score omits trumpets and trombones.
The concerto is sometimes numbered Opus 99, although because of the delay between composition and performance it was originally listed as Opus 77. Because of the uncertainty of the political climate, Shostakovich shelved the concerto until after Stalin's demise, and then released the concerto as Opus 99. For this reason, Opus 77 was then allocated to Three Pieces for Orchestra—a work little known outside of Russia and Shostakovich scholars.
The First Violin Concerto was composed during the post-war years in Soviet Russia (1947–48), a time of severe censorship. A new censorship decree had been issued in 1934 that required advance screenings of concerts, plays, and ballets at least ten days prior to their premieres, and seats in the concert halls were reserved for censors. Grounds for banning a work included anti-Soviet propaganda, lack of proper ideological perspective, and the lack of perceived artistic merit. In the 1950s, the focus of Soviet censorship shifted to literary works. Because of this hostile environment, Shostakovich kept the concerto unpublished until Stalin's death in March 1953 and the thaw that followed. Music historian Boris Schwarz notes that during the post-war years, Shostakovich divided his music into two idioms. The first was "simplified and accessible to comply with Kremlin guidelines" while the second was "complex and abstract to satisfy [Shostakovich's] own artistic standards". The First Violin Concerto, given the complex nature of its composition, falls into the second category and as such was not premiered until 1955.
David Oistrakh and premiere
The First Violin Concerto was written for renowned Soviet violinist David Oistrakh, and Shostakovich initially played the work for the violinist in 1948. In the intervening years, the concerto was edited by Shostakovich and Oistrakh. Oistrakh performed the premiere of the concerto on 29 October 1955 with the Leningrad Philharmonic with Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting. It was well received in Russia and abroad as an "extraordinary success".
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The First Violin Concerto is not only a major individual accomplishment of Shostakovich but also a major contributor to the violin concerto in its four-movement form.
Because of the delay before its premiere, it is unknown whether or not the concerto was composed before the Tenth Symphony (1953). While the Symphony is generally thought to have been the first work that introduces Shostakovich's famous DSCH motif, it is possible that the First Violin Concerto was actually the first instance of the motif, where it appears in the second movement. The letters DSCH are arranged in a German 'spelling' of the composer's initials on the staff in an inversion of a  tetrachord and are usually arranged as close together pitch-wise as possible. Shostakovich uses this theme in many of his works to represent himself.
The Concerto is symphonic in form, adopting the four-movement form of the symphony. The first movement, a nocturne, is an elaboration on a fantasy form. The violin solo is prefaced by a brief orchestral interlude that serves to propose the melodic sentence upon which the violin solo later meditates, adding rhythmic and melodic motifs as the movement progresses. The movement starts pianissimo, and by the time it reaches its first dynamic peak, all of the substantial melodic and rhythmic information has been presented.
The second movement is the diabolic scherzo, featuring uneven metric stresses set against a steady rhythmic pulse. The solo violin in this movement has the freedom to be wildly virtuosic, and much of the movement, due to its upbeat tempo and rhythmic plays, seems to be derived from popular folk or peasant music. It is a complexly naïve movement: the mechanical feel of the rhythmic pulse, the support beam for the entire movement, suggests the Russian peasant, while the exhibitionism in the solo violin is anything but simple. This peasant motif will be later explored in the finale, where it is presented more obviously, but less convincingly, without the fireworks of the solo layered on top of it.
The Passacaglia, perhaps the most famous movement of the concerto, is quite the opposite of the lively Scherzo, but it serves to reinstate melody to the concerto. The Nocturne and the Passacaglia are related not only in speed and length but also in melodic growth and symphonic quality. The Passacaglia has the most emotional depth of the entire concerto and allows for much expression on the part of the soloist. The movement ends in an exceptionally long cadenza which also allows for exceptional emotional quality and leads seamlessly into the Burlesque finale.
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