Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. The Violin Concerto No. 2 was composed in the spring of 1967, completed at the composer’s summer house in Repino on May 18, 1967, and dedicated to violinist David Oistrakh. Oistrakh was soloist in the unofficial premiere in Bolshevo, near Moscow, on September 13, 1967, and in the official premiere on September 26 in Moscow, both with the Moscow Philharmonic conducted by Kirill Kondrashin.
The concerto is scored for solo violin, piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, timpani, tom-tom, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 33 minutes long.
“Very slowly, with difficulty, squeezing it out note by note, I am writing a Violin Concerto. Otherwise everything is going splendidly.”
Shostakovich wrote this note to his confidant and longtime correspondent Isaac Glikman on April 8, 1967. Five weeks later, he had completed the Violin Concerto No. 2, the last of his six concerti, each with a vivid and unique personality (two for piano, two for cello and two for violin). Like the Violin Concerto No. 1, composed almost twenty years earlier, it was written for and dedicated to David Oistrakh (1908-74), whom Shostakovich had known and “adored” (according to Oistrakh’s son Igor) since 1935, when they toured Turkey together as part of an official Soviet musical delegation. Over the years, Shostakovich and Oistrakh (“King David” to his many admirers) had become fast friends and frequent musical collaborators, taking refuge in their intense shared artistic passion and creative fellowship through the horrors of World War II and Stalinist repression. The Violin Concerto No. 2 was intended as a birthday present for Oistrakh on the occasion of his 60th birthday on September 30, 1967. But the famously absent-minded Shostakovich, who had suffered his first heart attack the preceding year and had been in ill health ever since, was so eager to honor his friend that he jumped the gun by a year: Oistrakh was born in Odessa in 1908, not 1907. (Shostakovich was almost exactly two years older). To make up for his embarrassing but well-intentioned mistake, Shostakovich wrote his only violin sonata for Oistrakh the following year.
From the outset, Shostakovich was inspired by the special qualities of Oistrakh’s playing—warmth, depth, emotional sensitivity, and towering technical mastery. “I have finished the new violin concerto,” he wrote to Oistrakh. “I have been writing it with you in mind. I really want to show it to you, although it is incredibly difficult for me to play it on the piano. If the Concerto does not displease you, it will make me very happy. And if you were to play it, then words could not begin to describe how happy I would be. And if you do not object, I would very much like to dedicate the Concerto to you.”
Much had changed in the world and in Shostakovich’s life in the years that had passed since he completed the First Violin Concerto in 1948. In that perilous time, the virulent Stalinist persecution of “formalist” and “anti-Soviet” creative artists, including Shostakovich, had led him to postpone the First Concerto’s premiere for seven years, until after Stalin’s death. By 1967, Stalin had long been dead, and the atmosphere in Soviet music and culture had become considerably more free—but still confining. Shostakovich had become more adventurous in his musical language and subject matter, as in his Thirteenth Symphony (“Babi yar,” 1962), set to texts by the young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, including a highly controversial poem about the massacre of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis (with the help of local people) in 1941. But Soviet officials, including Premier Nikita Khrushchev, decided he had gone too far and demanded changes in the text, leaving Shostakovich disillusioned and depressed.
As he grew older, his health (undermined by years of smoking, drinking, and stress) began to decline, and he lost numerous friends and colleagues. On the occasion of his 62nd birthday in 1968, he expressed his darkening King Lear-like mood in a letter to Isaac Glikman: “Tomorrow is my 62nd birthday. People of that age love to be coquettish when answering the question: ‘If you could be born again, would you spend another 62 years the same way you have spent these 62 years?’ ‘Yes, of course, I had some failures, there were disappointments, but overall I would spend those 62 years the same way.’ But if that question were asked of me, I would answer, ‘No. A thousand times no!’”
In the last years of his life, Shostakovich retreated into a more introverted and intellectual style. He poured more energy into chamber music, especially string quartets, composing seven of his fifteen quartets between 1964 and 1975. His works became more somber, with less of the carnivalesque exuberance of the early symphonies, concertos (especially the First Piano Concerto), or the eccentric opera The Nose. One feels this shift when comparing the First and Second violin concertos. The First is unconventional and exuberant in form, dominated by two long slow movements—an opening Nocturne and a Passacaglia—and a knotty cadenza between the last two movements, punctuated by satirical and grotesque episodes. Klezmer-style passages, typical of Jewish folk music, pay tribute to the Jewish heritage of Oistrakh, who grew up in the lively Jewish community of Odessa, in Ukraine. (It was largely the “Jewishness” of the First Concerto that Shostakovich feared anti-Semitic Soviet cultural officials would find unacceptable in 1948.)
By contrast, the Second Concerto unfolds in a generally more sedate and less dissonant language, with long lyrical passages exploiting Oistrakh’s ability to make the violin sing and sob. The three-movement structure is more conventionally classical, with an opening movement in sonata form, set in the unusual key of C-sharp minor, a particularly awkward key for the violin. (Shostakovich does not indicate key signatures in the score, however.) Four sparingly employed horns are the only brass instruments in the small, chamber-like orchestra, and the percussion section (often very large in Shostakovich’s symphonies) includes only timpani and tom-tom. Over a slithering bass line in the strings that recalls the opening of the Tenth Symphony, the soloist offers the main theme, centering around only four notes, but expanding into a long soulful aria. Fragments of its opening measures resurface throughout the Concerto. A second jocular theme appears first in the piccolo, then taken up by the soloist in pizzicato quadruple stops (the soloist playing chords across all four strings), with asymmetrical tom-tom accompaniment.
Just before the first of the Concerto’s three extended and technically demanding cadenzas, we suddenly hear a fragment of the tune of a well-known Jewish vendor’s street song from Odessa—“Come buy my bagels!” (“Kupite bublichki!”)—a fond nod to Oistrakh. This ditty reappears briefly towards the end of the third movement. As San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik has observed, this humorous quotation “so genuinely depicts the atmosphere of Odessa. It isn’t your typical classical phrasing or sound, and it leans more toward folk fiddling than an academic concerto.”
Set in G-minor, the mournful melody of the slow second movement is first played on the G string with the contrasting accompaniment of a keening solo flute. Bach’s influence feels strong here, especially in the passacaglia-like bass line in the strings and the restrained proportions. The concerto’s second (and shorter) cadenza follows a weird duet between the soloist and the timpani. Without pause, the third movement begins with a meditative duet between the soloist and muted horn before shifting gears to a frenzied dance in 2/4 that becomes the basis of an extended rondo structure that involves the entire ensemble for the first time. The action pauses for a long cadenza that includes echoes of the first movement’s main theme and the “Bagels” tune, then winds down to a quiet restatement of the concerto’s ruminative opening measures, played by the soloist with oboe and clarinet. Perhaps because of its contemplative mood and less theatrical solo part, the Second Concerto has never rivalled the First in popularity. Oistrakh was one of its most ardent defenders, as he wrote. “Shostakovich…never repeats himself. On the one hand he always remains true to himself, and on the other his compositions are so brimming with power, emotion, and ideas that they overflow into new forms. There’s always something unexpected in each of his new works.” As a violinist, Oistrakh also found the Second Concerto very playable, despite what initially appear to be its “insuperable” technical challenges, including long sequences of rapidly changing double stops and precious few breaks for the soloist throughout its more than 30-minute duration. “Once you’ve got the hang of it, you have to admit that the composer understands stringed instruments inside out.”
Because he had recently broken his leg, Shostakovich was unable to attend either of the first two performances in Moscow. Oistrakh sent him a recording of the first concert, however, and Shostakovich called his interpretation of the solo part “brilliant.” A few months later, Oistrakh gave the Concerto’s U.S. premiere on what was surely a memorable occasion, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, on January 11, 1968.
Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He has contributed essays and reviews to the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Symphony, Musical America, and Opera News, and program essays to the BSO, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival, and Metropolitan Opera.
The first U.S. performance, as noted in the program essay, of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2 was by David Oistrakh with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic on January 11, 1968.
The first BSO performances of the Violin Concerto No. 2 were Gidon Kremer’s under Seiji Ozawa, April 15-18, 1992.