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The Emotional Story Behind Dmitri Shostakovich's Monumental First Violin Concerto

Michael Ozersky/Getty Images
Dmitri Shostakovich circa 1955

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) composed music in a turbulent political climate where Soviet authorities alternately praised and condemned his work. He kept his first violin concerto in a drawer for seven years until the time was right for its performance in 1955. 

According to violinist Leonidas Kavakos, it's one of the most powerful classical works that has ever been written. Listen on Sunday, July 5th at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, July 6th at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2 to hear Kavakos play Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Shostakovich's first violin concerto came at a time when the Russian composer had been riding a roller coaster of triumph and condemnation—at least as far as the Soviet authorities were concerned. 

Praised for his early compositions, Shostakovich was rebuked in 1936 for his opera Lady Macbeth, acclaimed in 1937 for his fifth symphony, and later denounced, for "formalism" in 1948, the same year he completed—and then put away—his first violin concerto. It was finally premiered in 1955 by the Leningrad Philharmonic, two years after Stalin's death in 1953. It remains a testament to a turbulent time in Soviet history. 

WRTI's Susan Lewis talks to violinist Leonidas Kavakos about playing Shostakovich.

"What is really amazing about this concerto is the different ways to describe depression and separation," says violinist Leonidas Kavakos. "We have a first movement, which gives the impression of ghosts moving around and it's impressionistic practically... this very strong emotional environment that he manages to describe in a very ethereal way." 

And yet...

"That is immediately destroyed in the second movement where now we have anger, we have, again, depression, but it's expressed in a different way. It's expressed in a way that is furious. ....there is always something ugly around.

The violin continues telling a story that is politically forbidden— moving to a hymn-like theme in the third movement, and a burlesque in the fourth.

He was expressing his desperation, says Kavokos.

"He tries everything, the dream, the ugliness, the religious element, the solitude. And finally that dance, that explosive dance.  [The dance] is another way of crying out, but now it's more like madness." 

Music in response to — and in defiance of —an atmosphere of oppression. Kavokos suggests that such an environment pushed Shostakovich to write his monumental music.   

"These kinds of situations created for him this amazing power and drive to find a way. It's like, you know, sometimes you drive in the asphalt and all of a sudden you see a little green little plant that is kind of growing out of the asphalt and you say, my God, how is that possible? .... But this is the power of the will, you know, that somebody will do this, no matter what."

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.