Our music for this week is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich,
performed by the Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos.
As we learned a few weeks ago when we listened to Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, Shostakovich was periodically in hot water with the Soviet leadership under which he labored. It was this pressure that caused him to tuck his First Violin Concerto away in his desk upon its completion. He feared a strong negative reaction from the government and chose to wait for a more favorable time for publication. This time arrived with the death of Stalin in 1953. David Oistrakh, the legendary father of Russian violin playing, premiered the work in Leningrad and received endless ovations. A few months later, American audiences followed suit.
The concerto is monumental. Watching Kavakos play this piece is amazing simply because he is still able to invest himself in it by the end. Shostakovich himself referred to it as his “iron man” concerto. Legend has it that Oistrakh, after the first rehearsal, begged Shostakovich to give more of the thematic material to the orchestra so that he could find time to wipe the sweat off of his brow.
The savagery of the second movement, emotional overload of the third movement, and mockery of the fourth movement are impressive. However, I find the first movement to be the most moving. It is not as impressive or flashy as the others, yet it is twice as powerful. It taps into orchestral depths that other composers are afraid to go to, and the violin line takes the listener into an eerie, other-worldly, trance-like place.
Our music for today is the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #11, which carries the subtitle “The Year 1905.” The symphony was written in 1957. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs in the recording you will hear.
The subtitle refers to the political upheaval of the Russian Revolution of 1905. At the time he wrote the eleventh symphony, Shostakovich was in hot water with the Soviet administration for statements he had made several years earlier. After writing this symphony – which effectively glorified the Soviets’ military might – he was quickly accepted back into the regime’s good graces. Soon afterward, he was awarded the Lenin Prize and an official apology was issued regarding his previous mistreatment.
This second movement is one of the wildest pieces of music you’ll ever hear. It is completely out of control. It carries the subtitle “The 9th of January,” which refers to the violent events of Bloody Sunday at the Winter Palace. On that date, a group of peaceful demonstrators were gunned down by the Imperial Guard in an occurrence that is now regarded as the catalyst for the Russian Revolution of 1905.
The eerie opening theme (which is based on a folk song from Shostakovich’s childhood) represents the group of protestors walking to the Winter Palace to complain about the government’s corruption. The distant brass foreshadow the military might that is soon to confront them. Midway through the movement (at 11:18), a sudden crescendo builds into a series of explosions from the snare drum (gunfire) and strings (the footsteps of the marching soldiers). This part of the music can only be described as absolute insanity. The amount of sound that Shostakovich unleashes is overwhelming. Pounding bass drums, searing cymbals, relentless snare drum, and overwhelming brass create a mechanical and horrifying picture of the massacre. The main theme – which in my opinion is the most “Shostakovich-ian” melody of all time – comes roaring in at 13:29.
Our music for today comes from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This song is a soprano solo titled Katerina’s Aria, and it is sung by Galina Vishnevskaya.
This opera was based on a Russian folk story about a young woman who falls in love but is shunned by the object of her affections. This rejection later drives her to madness and, eventually, murder. However, Shostakovich was not interested in the story itself; rather, he was interested in exploring all of the possibilities of the soprano voice. The opera is almost entirely focused on glittering soprano solo lines, and even the oft-powerful tenor line is noticeably absent. Shostakovich even changed the folk story so that he could give the soprano more of a solo presence. The aria that you hear this recording is one in which the main character, Katerina, sings of the guilt and remorse that have resulted from her murderous actions.
Shostakovich which was not only interested in displaying the soprano voice through a dark and tragic story. He also wanted to paint a new and different conception of what love could be. As he wrote about the opera, “I dedicated Lady Macbeth to my bride, my future wife, so naturally the opera is about love, too, but not only love. It’s also about how love could have been if the world weren’t full of vile things.”
The opera enjoyed spectacular success until early 1936, when it was the object of a sudden and shockingly harsh reprimand by the ruling Communist Party. This denunciation was, for the time being, a death knell for this opera. Sadly, it became well known later on largely because of its history of censorship.
The singer you will hear is Galina Vishnevskaya, who was honored as a People’s Artist of Russia in 1966. As a child prodigy growing up under the guidance of the renowned Moscow Conservatory, she rose to fame at a young age and performed most of the world’s most popular Sopranos lines before the age of 30. She was married to the world famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and the two of them where best friends with Shostakovich himself. It is therefore quite likely that Shostakovich wrote this soprano line with Galina’s voice in mind.