Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1
In almost every one of the past shows I’ve done about Shostakovich, the name Joseph Stalin is mentioned almost as much as the name Dmitri Shostakovich, and of course, there’s a good reason for that. Shostakovich’s life and music was inextricably linked to the Soviet dictator, and Shostakovich, like millions of Soviet citizens, lived in fear of the Stalin regime, which exiled, imprisoned, or murdered so many of Shostakovich’s friends and even some family members. Post his 1936 denunciation, Shostakovich’s music completely changed. Moving away from the radical experimentation he had attempted with his doomed opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, he adopted a slightly more conservative style, which he hoped would keep him in good stead with the authorities.
But the piece I’m going to tell you about today, his monumental first violin concerto, is a bit different. It was written just after World War II, between 1947 and 1948. And yet, it was not performed until 8 years later. Shostakovich himself withdrew the work and kept it “in the drawer” along with his 4th string quartet and his song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry.
When the piece was finally performed by its dedicatee, David Oistrakh, it was a massive success, and it remains one of the best ways to “get into” Shostakovich’s music. It is a huge work, in 4 grand movements, and Shostkaocvich himself described it as a “symphony for violin solo.” It features all of the qualities that make Shostakovich’s music so exciting, powerful, heartbreaking, and intense, while also allowing the listener, for the most part, to remove politics from the equation. While there are certainly encoded messages in the piece, one of which we’ll get into in detail, this is a piece that is as close to pure musical expression as any of Shostakovich’s post 1936 works, and so today I won’t be mentioning Stalin all that much, I won’t be mentioning the Soviet government every other sentence, and instead, we’ll explore what makes this concerto so fantastic, so emotionally powerful, and so rousingly exciting. Join us!