During the concert season 1946/47, the famous Russian violinist David Oistrakh presented the spectacular cycle “Development of the Violin Concerto”. Shostakovich was deeply impressed by the development of the genre, Oistrakh’s concerts activated his imagination to the violin as an instrument capable of great “Shakespearean” roles. Two years have passed since the creation of the Symphony No 9, another fiercely criticized one.
In a creative stupor, the composer decided to write something different – a violin concerto, inspired by the mastery of David Fyodorovich. “His extraordinary musicality, the beauty of his sound, his magnificent technique could not pass without a trace for me.”, Shostakovich notes. For a few days in the Creative House in Komarovo he sketched the Concerto No 1 for violin and orchestra in A minor op. 77 (July 21st -25th , 1947), but in the meantime events took place, due to which the completion of the score was extended until March 24th , 1948.
On the occasion of Stalin’s dissatisfaction with Vano Muradeli’s opera The Great Friendship, on February 10th , 1948, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Supreme Communist Party (bolsheviks) publishes a Resolution which crashes not only that untalented piece, but also the art of the most talented composers. The list was lead by Shostakovich, followed by Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, Vissarion Shebalin, Gavriil Popov, Nikolai Myaskovsky and others. They were all accused of formalistic perversions, anti-democratic tendencies, alien to the Soviet people and their artistic tastes, and so on. In addition to the compulsion of public remorse, the ideological inquisition forbade their works to be performed at concerts, to be heard on radio broadcasts, and to be published. Shostakovich was fired from the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories, where he taught composition, due to “professional unfitness and harmful influence” on young musicians. To support his family, he wrote film music and was selling scores from his library…
It was in such a poisonous atmosphere that the Violin Concerto No. 1 was written. The solo instrument was manifested with irresistible force in the tragic concept of the work, as if it is the voice of the author himself, a mouthpiece of his spiritual values. Indicative is the fact that for the first time in this work Shostakovich weaved the motif DECB (D flat – E flat – C – B). – his musical monogram D.Sch., written in Latin, which he will incorporate in a number of other opuses.
With its genre originality, the concert became a continuation of the great symphonic canvases of the composer. The bright symphonic sound of the score organically merges with the extremely difficult solo part, which requires higher technical and artistic mastery from the violinist, as well as colossal energy and endurance. According to the author’s description, the work is in four parts, but the important dramatic role of the unfolded solo cadence between parts III and IV, which restores echoes from the previous parts, lays the feeling of a five-part cycle, similar to the construction of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Researchers point out that the titles of the individual parts were written by Shostakovich in the finished manuscript. That means the work was born without program guidelines, introduced later probably for easier perception of the concert.
The tragedy is stated in the first part, called Nocturne. Sad philosophical reflection of the “self” on the meaning of being. It gives rise to the conflict between the individual and society, further developed in the cyclical form. The second part – a wild, motor, unbridled Scherzo, embodies the image of Evil. It is portrait by Shostakovich, as in many of his other works, with demonic grotesqueness. The choral sorrowful Passacaglia (Part III) – in form variations basso ostinato, together with the expressive Cadenza growing from it, spreads an echo of Zhdanov’s Decree. The memoirs of the composer read: “In the evenings, when the infamous, disgusting discussions ended, I would return home and write the third part of the Violin Concerto.”Without a break after the Cadenzas, the final, Burlesque, rushes in. David Oistrakh objected to this title and suggested that the composer look for another, “conveying more accurately the content of the fourth part with his Russian heroism and bright folk jubilation”. Shostakovich remained adamant – joy flows through tears from this “festive” finale. When handing the manuscript to the violinist with dedication, he advised him: “David Fyodorovich, you don’t have to play it now.”
The premiere has been delayed for 7 years. The tyrant Stalin died in 1953 and only on October 29th , 1955 in the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic David Oistrakh played the Violin Concerto No 1 under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky. The audience applauded Shostakovich’s work, which they had long expected to hear. During the rehearsals (10 in number!) the composer made small corrections, re-orchestrated the beginning of the finale. Thus, the Concert exists in two editions – one from 1948 and the other – from 1955. The first performance outside the Soviet Union was in New York on December 29th of that same year at Carnegie Hall. Oistrakh was the soloist of the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos.