Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77
Born: September 25, 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: August 9, 1975 in Moscow, Russia
Shostakovich wrote his two violin concerti for his friend, master violinist David Oistrakh, who was very helpful to him in the writing of the solo parts. The First Violin Concerto, written in 1947-48, lay hidden in a desk drawer until its premier October 29, 1955, with the Leningrad Philharmonic and the dedicatee as soloist.
It was not safe to bring it out until two years after Stalin’s death. The 1946 Zhdanov Doctrine, named after his “Witchfinder General” Andrew Zhdanov, had stated that the post war world was divided in two camps: the imperialist United States and the democratic Soviet Union, and it included a thinly disguised warning: “The only conflict that is possible in the Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best.”
Although a decree on music was not specifically issued until February 10, 1948, Shostakovich knew that the meaning of the Zhdanov Doctrine would apply to his work; that “best” meant adherence to specific government cultural standards. And he also knew that his First Violin Concerto would not have been acceptable: it was too individualistic. Too complicated. Too novel. Too atonal. Too incomprehensible for the lowest denominator of Soviet music audiences to easily enjoy.
The decree was not limited to an artistic critique. It also meant direct persecution and possible expulsion to the Siberian Gulag and forced labor camps. The term GULAG was the acronym for Main Administration of Corrective labor Camps. It was easy to get a one-way ticket on the Trans-Siberian railroad during Stalin’s regime, and during his dictatorship, over a million people would lose their lives in exile to one of the camps. And Shostakovich and Stalin did not get along. The composer was suspect. In 1948 he was condemned for formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music, alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.
“Shostakovich’s First Violin concerto is a veritable ‘iron man’ concerto, calling on everything in the violinists’ technical arsenal, as well as vast physical and emotional stamina. Even Oistrakh begged the composer to give the opening of the finale to the orchestra so that ‘I can at least wipe the sweat off my brow’ after the daunting solo cadenza that concludes the third movement” (Program notes, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra).
There are four movements in Opus 77 (sometimes also called opus 99 after its publication in 1956). At one time, Shostakovich noted that his concerto was “a symphony for solo violin and orchestra.”
The first movement is titled Nocturne, beginning in a low register, a slow pace, and producing a haunting atmosphere. The soloist begins with a long expansive melody which is based on the orchestra’s introduction, a part which seems to meditate on the introductory ideas. From time to time the bassoon offers contrapuntal commentary, and the winds offer complimentary color. The focus remains steadily on the violinist who is given biting, dissonant heavy discourse. “Only in the central episode where the soft celesta chimes, does the music give way and there is a glimpse of lightness or freedom.” At the close, the opening eerie mood returns, continuing what Oistrakh called “suppression of feelings.”
The second movement, Scherzo, bounces out quickly from the winds, followed by a sassy, rough answer from the soloist, likened to an “unruly vodka-fed folk dance.” Rhythms are brusk, crude and uneven, set within frenetic tempi. There is nothing playful or happy herein; if anything, we find a sardonic parody of jollity. For added impudence, Shostakovich inserts his own musical initials in the second section (the tones D, E-flat, C, B), the first time he put this four-note pattern into his music: a ploy he would use in other future works as well.
The third movement, Andante, is a passacaglia, producing a set of nine variations over the repeated baseline pattern of seventeen measures. From time to time, this baseline is passed along to other parts of the orchestra, aside from the low strings and tuba, such as the English horn. At the close of the ninth variation, the orchestra freezes on a long-held F: preparing for the gigantic cadenza, which bridges to the finale.
The finale continues with wild abandon in a Burlesca marked Allegro con brio. A brisk tune moves relentlessly forward with heavy timpani accents, sometimes called a “kicking Stalin gopak.” The soloist enters in a brilliant, fast-paced statement. Some elements of Stravinsky’s Petrushka are also quoted, lending a celebratory element in what could be liked to a crazed Shrovetide festival. Dynamics remain loud most of the time; orchestra and soloist combine with frequent interactions, which each performing force seizes aggressively. The passacaglia theme makes another appearance, but this time with a fast-paced presto running below it. There is no letup in the inferno as the concerto ends in scorching conflagration.
Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 47
December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland – September 20, 1957,Järvenpää, Finland
When he was ten years old, Sibelius began to study the violin, practicing from “morning to night” and desiring to “be a celebrated violinist at any price.” Fifteen years later he commented, “I came to the very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the career of an eminent performer too late!” Michael Steinberg said that Sibelius wrote this “for a kind of ghostly self.”
In 1903, he began to work on his only Violin Concerto. Though plagued by a severe ear infection and throat complications, he worked assiduously, occasionally taking a bit of time off for some fun in certain Helsinki bars. Sometimes he was gone a couple of days on his “fun times.” When the finale of the concerto needed parts to be orchestrated, Mrs. Sibelius had to go with conductor Robert Kajanus to find him. Sibelius was on one of his little drinking interludes. He was found in time and all was well. The concerto premiered on February 8, 1904, to a modest reception. The soloist was Victor Nováček, a fine violin teacher, but not a performer. Undeterred, Sibelius reworked Opus 47 and a new premiere in Berlin took place on October 19, 1905, with Richard Strauss conducting and Karl Halir as soloist, which produced a far better result.
His concerto is extremely difficult, demanding multiple double stops (playing two strings at one time), placement of activity and themes in the high area of the instrument (difficult intonation), fast tempi, and incredible bowing requirements to negotiate wide leaps and sustaining of long melodies. These difficulties kept the concerto from wide circulation until after World War II. Perhaps violinists had improved? Sibelius was well acquainted with violin technique and not afraid to demand the ultimate.
The first movement demonstrates his demand for bow control in the display of the opening idea (marked allegro moderato). The rhapsodic theme measures thirty measures and is sung by the soloist over an undercurrent of muted, divided strings. Entering on an off beat, and “delicately dissonant,” the first note grabs attention. “I have had a marvelous opening idea,” the composer wrote to his wife. Winds, in low register, share commentary on the idea. A second soulful theme is delivered by celli and bassoons. The development shortens and compresses the ideas, offering sharp contrast to the extended, long-winded lines of the soloist. This interior section includes a formidable cadenza (sometimes therefore called development/cadenza section). This section leads directly to the recapitulation with the themes considerably altered from their first visit. A second cadenza occurs followed by a flashing coda featuring the soloist soaring above full orchestra, closing the movement.
A tender, romantic tune sung by paired clarinets and oboes in thirds opens the second movement. The idea is quickly overtaken by the soloist presenting a long lyrical theme, marked sonoro ed espressivo. Horns and bassoons provide a secure foundation before other instruments add subsidiary comments. The initial meditative, Nordic atmosphere, is interrupted by wind, strings, and timpani in jolly spirits, and the soloist quickly joins the fun. During the exuberance, one of the concerto’s most incredible demands—playing a fiercely difficult passage including both theme and accompaniment—swings into action, careening to a flashing climax. The orchestra restates the opening theme, now decorated by limpid violinistic figuration, leading to a quiet close and a few nostalgic phrases.
Sibelius characterized the finale as a “danse macabre.” Sir Donald Tovey called it a “polonaise for bears.” Heavy stamping, intense rhythms, and technical bravura combine in a showstopper. Immediately, the soloist reveals a tense, jagged theme with kettledrums and strings thumping a strong undercurrent. As complexity grows, the violinist is unrelentingly taken through a massive display and demand of superlative technique with fiery arpeggios, harmonics (specially formed notes with partially depressed strings) and soaring melodies. A brief gasp of air is allowed in one slower melody, but the urgency resumes to a sudden explosive close. With its extreme virtuosic demands, this concerto can be considered a real throwback to the familiar romantic tradition of high wire performance danger and daring as the sine qua non of the concerto concept.
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53
September 8, 1841, Mulhausen, Bohemia – May 1, 1904, Prague, Czechoslovakia
When one of Dvořák’s contemporaries complained that conversation with the composer was impossible unless the subject was music, the answer was, “Well, have you talked with him about pigs?” Dvořák was not a complicated or sophisticated man. He was the son of a butcher, born in a rural Bohemian village, and he never abandoned his small town roots and attitudes. He allowed music to flow from his heart, reflecting this simplicity and child-like sincerity. His music is eminently accessible and tuneful. Daniel Mason observed, “His aims in music have always been simple, unsophisticated by intellectualism… Indeed, of all the great composers, he is perhaps least the scholar, most the sublimated troubadour…To him music is primarily sweet sound…”
From a historical viewpoint, Bedřich Smetana and Dvořák are the two great representatives of the Czech school that flowered from the middle to the end of the 19th century. Dvořák’s musical aesthetic was deeply committed to nationalism; i.e., the incorporation of national inflections and folk elements in tunes, rhythms and dances. Although the hallmark of Dvořák’s style is his emphasis on Bohemian folk culture and language, his works rise far beyond the category of mere national specimens. The end result was a refreshing body of music filled with a sweetness and beguiling lyricism that has endured the tests of time and tastes.
Dvořák’s Violin Concerto was composed during the summer of 1879, a period in which he was just beginning to gain international recognition and fame. Several factors contributed to rescuing him from obscurity, but the single most important boost was the endorsement of his talent and his composition by Johannes Brahms. Through the enthusiastic support of Brahms, Dvořák was given a musical pedigree and validated beyond the environs of his native land. Brahms also recommended his work to the great music publisher N. Simrock of Berlin, which insured a respectable publisher for the newcomer. And it was through Brahms that Dvořák met the great violinist Joseph Joachim. This introduction resulted in a request for a violin concerto.
With prompt diligence, Dvořák composed his three-movement Violin Concerto for Joachim within a few months of the request. But Joachim was not pleased. Dvořák then kindly agreed to revised the work, and by May of 1880, he had incorporated the virtuoso’s suggestions. He wrote to Simrock, “According to Mr. Joachim’s wish, I worked most carefully over the whole concerto without missing a single bar. He will certainly be pleased by that. I put the greatest effort into it. The whole concerto has been transformed.” The totally revised concerto was sent to Joachim, who then proceeded to do precisely nothing for two years. Dvořák waited.
Joachim finally agreed to “rehearse” the concerto in 1882. The rehearsal did not go well, and Joachim decided to add even more suggestions. Dvořák’s patience had worn thin by this point, and he asked another violinist, František Ondřiček, to premiere the work in October of 1883 with the Orchestra of the Czech National Theatre. Ondřiček did so with great and immediate success. Although the work was dedicated to him, Joachim – petulant to the end – did not perform the concerto even once in his life. The loss was his. Dvořák’s Violin Concerto has become one of the most popular in the violin concerto repertoire.
The concerto is written in three movements, the first leading directly into the second. A brilliant orchestral introduction opens the work with the violin entering early in the movement. The structure is basically monothematic (one theme), and the music flows easily between soloist and orchestra. There is no recap of the opening; instead, Dvořák writes only a tiny cadenza before sailing directly into the second movement. The second movement, a romance, opens with a long-spanned melody sung first by the solo violin. Two other themes enter the picture in a combination of violin and orchestra. This music rises to rich passion in the center section that includes marvelous bravura passages for the soloist. Dvořák had been a violinist for many years himself, and he knew quite well how to write for the instrument. Especially here he reveals his thorough knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument. A French horn closes the movement, playing the opening them while the solo violin swirls higher and higher above it.
The third movement is quite reminiscent of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, written just one year before the original version of his concerto. Like the Slavonic Dances, this movement incorporates distinctive Czechoslovakian rhythms and forms. The form is rondo-like, featuring a series of bright dances. The mood is fiery and exciting. It opens with a dramatic ten-measure tune etched by the distinctive rhythms of the Czech furiant (dance). Everyone engages in a riotous display of energy and drive, which is relieved, at one point, by a beautiful dumka passage. A dumka is music of a serious nature, poignant and melancholy. The buoyant mood returns to close the concerto in a coda of high spirts.