Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Opus 77 (99)

performed by Nicola Benedetti and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Karabits (a new and wonderful recording) or below by the dedicatee and premiere performer of the work, David Oistrakh, and the Staatskapelle Berlin under Heinz Fricke

There are many kinds of beauty. Tritely, I suppose, one could say there are as many kinds of beauty as there are beholders. But there are also many kinds of or approaches to classical music. The person who listens to a recording of someone play Mozart sonatas or serenades every night before bed and doesn’t even know who it is cannot really be said to love classical music, can they? They can’t even really be said to love Mozart, only the pretty, dainty, quiet stuff he wrote for piano or strings or whatever.

(I also must point out that this is music post number 300! It’s been almost three years that I’ve been writing this blog… and it was slow(er) going at first. In those first two and a half years, I did 200 posts [from October of 2013 up to February of 2016] and since Feb ’16 have published another hundred music posts, mostly thanks to the String Quartet Series on the weekends. Counting other posts not focused on specific pieces of music [concert reviews, thoughts, introductions, wrap-ups, influential people, etc.] this is article no. 551! I hadn’t intended this piece specifically to be no. 300 in the musical line-up but it fell that way a few months ago and it was a piece I came to love very much, so it stayed. Thanks for reading, and please stick around!)

Think of classical music (I’ve said this before) like movies. There are all kinds of movies, everything from The Devil Wears Prada or A Fish Called Wanda to The Ten Commandments, Russian Arkor Solarisand that’s not to say that someone who likes Prada wouldn’t like the Cecil B. DeMille film, or that someone who watched Notting Hill wouldn’t also enjoy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but they’d (hopefully) enjoy them for different reasons!

They have different purposes, different messages, are meant to evoke different feelings and leave you at the end of the film thinking and feeling different things. And getting back to different kinds of beauty, there is beauty that makes you smile, beauty that makes you laugh, heave a sigh of relief, or in some cases, have nothing but silence and/or tears.

Shostakovich is a powerful, raw example of that kind of painful, even violent beauty, and in many of his works, he walks a thin line between order and seeming chaos, between beauty and vulgarity, peace and pandemonium, in a way that sneaks up on you, and the result, even in those restful, slow passages, can be one of unease, like a too-quiet moment in a horror film. The overwhelming feeling in much of his music, though, whatever and however it is, is the compelling impression that it is expressing something that must be heard, cannot go unsaid. And this makes for very powerful music.

We have discussed only Shostakovich’s symphonies up to this point, his first (twice), fifth, and seventh, leaving us with a dozen more to make our way around to at some point, and recently the first two of his fifteen string quartets. There is much else he wrote (two concerti each for violin, cello and piano), and today we will be addressing for the first time one of his concertos.

If you don’t already know about the Zhdanov Decree, you should give it a quick read. It was a cultural doctrine of the Soviet Union that dictated that “Soviet artists, writers and intelligentsia in general had to conform to the party line in their creative works. Under this policy, artists who failed to comply with the government’s wishes risked persecution. The policy remained in effect until the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953.[2]

Obviously, unfortunately, this got in the way of many expressive and inventive Russian artists, not least of whom were composers, and Shostakovich was not the only one. His compatriot composers Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Myaskovsky were also affected by this decree, and works of people like Mosolov, Roslavets, and others may have suffered even worse. Shostakovich was able even then to walk that tightrope with pieces like his fifth and seventh symphonies, incredibly ingenious works that seemed to have powerfully antithetical messages, one that appeased the dictatorial regime, the other that spoke to the people who were suffering under it.

In the case of the first violin concerto, Shostakovich’s technique was to wait until the whole thing had blown over. It was begun a few years after World War II, ‘completed’ in 1948, but in the interim between its having been written and its eventual premiere in 1955 (Stalin died in ’53), the composer and dedicatee of the work made some revisions. It was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic with Oistrakh as soloist under Yevgeny Mravinsky.

There are some wonderfully descriptive quotes of the work from various people describing the distinct natures of each of the movements. While the work as a whole is one long line, a unified, powerful narration by the orchestra and the violin, there is also a great contrast in the expressions between the movements. It is in a mostly traditional four movement form, as listed below. Wiki says:

“The concerto lasts around 35 minutes and has four movements, with a cadenza linking the final two:

  1. Nocturne: Moderato – A semi-homage to the first movement of Elgar‘s Cello Concerto.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Burlesque: Allegro con brioPresto – The theme in the solo violin’s entrance resembles that of the solo flute’s entrance in Stravinsky‘s Petrouchka.”

“Oistrakh characterised the first movement Nocturne as ‘a suppression of feelings’, and the second movement Scherzo as ‘demoniac’.”

These first two movements characterize a violent contrast of emotion and expression that is outstandingly engaging.

From the word go, the piece is dark, rich, narrative, and kind of all-encompassing, like some otherworldly thing has eclipsed the sun and a chilly, uncomfortable breeze blows in. For most of the work, as seen above, the composer has stuck to a pretty traditional-seeming layout, but with a more symphonic four-movement rather than three-movement form. The first of these movement is the ‘suppressed’ nocturne, an interesting choice for a first movement. Benedetti says of the first movement (and I paraphrase) that every time the movement seems to be reaching some conclusion, seems to be getting somewhere, it’s pushed back down, rejected, failed, a kind of Sisyphean struggle, maybe.

The word ‘nocturne’ might call to mind a wispy, Romantic piano work from Chopin. This is nothing like that, except in that it is dark, and at times unsettlingly quiet. Wikipedia calls the movement an “elaboration on a fantasy form.” The music, like much of Shostakovich’s work, is sparse for long passages, leaving everything exposed, open, kind of brutally honest. The lines are long and expressive, a broad, open, yet still dark and foreboding movement, but one you can’t help but be engaged by.

That’s not to say that it’s all quiet and oddly serene, though. It reaches searingly powerful peaks of expression and pain, expressing struggle and torment that is palpable. In contrast with this mysterious, slow growing, almost lost-sounding movement is the diabolical scherzo second movement. This may be the first appearance of Shostakovich’s DSCH motif, a German ‘spelling’ of the composer’s name (representing pitches D, E flat, C, B, but transposed in different ways), used in some of his compositions. Wiki says that:

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.

In any case, the scherzo is not only maniacally lively and relentlessly energetic, but richly virtuosic, and there’s a contrast to be had here, too. Remember Bartok’s folk work? Remember Shostakovich’s first quartet? Do you hear any of that here? It’s there, and generally a folksy, rustic rhythm has a genial character to it, even if it’s in a minor key, something dance-like and spirited. We have that, but it clashes with a mechanical, “demoniac” nature of the work that borders on violent. It is at times topsy-turvy sounding, and while the piece is mostly in 3/8, there are bars of 2/8 or 4/8 thrown in, making it feel even more off, more unstable. At right about the midpoint of the scherzo (here in Hahn’s recording with the Concertgebouw), it ratchets up to a more frenzied level of evil celebration, with percussion, tambourine, and another dollop of craziness. Shostakovich has this phenomenal ability to carve out rhythms and melodies in his music like the sharp lines of a brand new drill bit, something that burrows itself into your head and has a kind of staying power that propels it forward and sticks with you.

Third is the passacaglia movement and, if counted together with the cadenza, the longest of the concerto, the centerpiece and maybe richest, most powerful of the entire work. A symphonic passacaglia like the end of Brahms’ fourth is apparently not very common, but I can’t think of another concerto with a passacaglia, at least not from the 19th century onward. I could be wrong though. It’s happened before.

In any case, the central movement seems more like the counterpart to the first movement, bookending the frightening scherzo between two broader, slower movements. Wiki says “The Nocturne and the Passacaglia are related not only in speed and length but also in melodic growth and symphonic quality.” You might not have noticed until now, but there are no trumpets in this work. That being said, the brass get their first big moment to shine (sear?) with the timpani in a passage to open the third movement that might sound triumphant if it weren’t so….. heavy. It’s like the brass answer to the cello and bass opening of the Nocturne. Much of the intensity of this movement, unsurprisingly, comes from the soloist, whose virtuosity is now no longer in blazing speed and technical accuracy, but in emotional depth and expression. She enters pleading, in a moment of tender lyricism, an expression of mourning that could bring one to tears. The movement swells and grows around the soloist, like a stalwart character in a tragedy, standing tall, face into the wind as everything crumbles around you. Toward the end of the movement (before the cadenza), she’s accompanied by plucked strings, and this leads, to me, perfectly  into the cadenza, almost its own movement unto itself (and sometimes tracked that way). The pizzicato in the strings accompanying the soloist is like having a moment with family before saying a final goodbye. The rest of the orchestra has gone, leaving only the soloist and her brethren for a more intimate moment before she goes off on her own.

The cadenza (at least in Benedetti’s recording) lasts around five and a half minutes, picking up where the passacaglia left off, touching on similar material, with long, pensive pauses. It takes a little time to get going, but the rich sounds of the violin and its stops and textures is a full, engaging standalone movement, with its own melodies, contrasts, incongruities and heart-wrenching emotion. She reaches a fiery conclusion, whipping up all the musical tension created up to that point to lead suddenly into the final Burlesque movement, which is itself shorter than the cadenza just played.

This movement calls back on some of the energy of the scherzo, and it’s actually a surprisingly welcome change, after the painful, almost grueling cadenza, to have some movement back, a bit of a spring in our step, even if it’s still unsettled. Wiki says that “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”, which one can certainly hear.

It’s funny, in such a dark work as this, to have movements titled ‘scherzo’ and ‘burlesque.’ One may think of Mahler’s ninth. A ‘scherzo’ was originally a light movement, the one that replaced the minuet, and ‘scherzo’ literally means “I joke” or “I jest” in Italian. Shostakovich wasn’t the first one to write a contrarian dark scherzo. Robert Schumann famously commented on Chopin’s piano scherzos (I know, scherzi), saying “How is ‘gravity’ to clothe itself if ‘jest’ goes about in dark veils?” Well, since that time, there have been plenty of wickedly unplayful scherzos, especially those from Bruckner or Mahler, but a burlesque isn’t just a striptease show. It’s actually “a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects”, per the Oxford English Dictionary. So I find it interesting that in such a heavy work, we have two ostensibly jocular, not serious works, which are in reality, extremely emotionally charged. This fits quite well with Shostakovich’s dark, powerful irony and sarcasm in much of his music, and in fact, the Burlesque final movement reaches a ‘brighter’ (but maybe just lighter-sounding) passage toward the end, but it, too, approaches an out-of-control energy, and whirls into furious final lines before reaching a thunderous finish.

The work was a success from the get go, and I feel it must be one of the greatest concertos in the violin repertoire, 20th century or otherwise. I have always felt Shostakovich is a powerful example of how life and experiences inform music, that the composer writes what they know when they can, but can also be the utilitarian artist, writing things for commissions when needed, taking a job to fulfill a role, but it’s music like the fifth symphony, the seventh, the tenth, and this concerto, the cello concerto, that expose a powerful, honest, bare unmistakable beauty, even if it isn’t a comfortable kind.

This isn’t music that the aforementioned lullaby Mozart-lover would likely get. It’s not ‘comfortable’ ‘pretty’ music, but it is, at least to me, some of the most powerful you’ll ever hear. It’s purposeful, historic, virtuosic, impassioned, meaningful, and engaging, and tiring. To be honest, I didn’t feel as strongly about the Bartok concerto last week, but I would easily put Shostakovich’s first violin concerto among the top three or five violin concertos in my book.

Apart from the bigness and straightforward honesty of this work, there’s another work for violin that the composer wrote, much later, and if you can believe it, I’d say it’s even darker. Stay tuned later this week for that.

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