5 Things You Didn't Know About Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1

On 14 December, the London Symphony Orchestra will perform Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1 with soloist James Ehnes and conductor Fabien Gabel. 

We take a look at the history of the piece and his life, and reveal the struggles Shostakovich had to overcome throughout his tumultuous professional career.

1. Mother Russia

Under Joseph Stalin's rule (mid-1920s until 1953), all Soviet composers were required to compose music of a fundamentally positive nature, designed to encourage feelings of patriotism for Mother Russia, (his Symphony No 9 was censured for its 'failure to reflect the spirit of the Soviet people'). Unfortunately for Shostakovich, his tendencies for seeing the darker side in almost everything led to him being largely disliked by Soviet Russia for vast periods of his professional career. Shostakovich lived in denunciation twice in his life, firstly in 1936 and for a second time in 1948 until Stalin's death in 1953. 

2. The Desk Drawer

During his second denunciation, Shostakovich only composed three categories of work: film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works "for the desk drawer", which included Violin Concerto No 1. This latter category were pieces that were 'complex and abstract to satisfy Shostakovich's own artistic standards'. During 1948, he was forced to make a public apology by Soviet officials, stating "I know the Party is right... I shall try again and again to create symphonic works close to the spirit of the people." Shostakovich waited two years after Stalin's death to premiere Violin Concerto No 1. 

3. The DSCH Motif

Because Violin Concerto No 1 was written during Schostakovich's denunciation, it is unknown whether is was written before or after his Tenth Symphony (1953). It is thought that No 10 is the first work that introduces the famous DSCH motif, but it is possible that his Violin Concerto No 1 was actually the first instance of the motif, as it appears in the second movement. The motif is used in many of his works and is believed to represent Shostakovich himself. The name is ingeniously derived from the German transliteration of his name, Dmitri SCHostakovich. In German musical notation S is E-flat and H is B natural, resulting in an unsettling four note sequence D-E flat-C-B. 

4. Lost Works

Throughout his lifetime, as well as completing major symphonies and orchestral works Shostakovich was an established film composer, creating scores for 36 films.. Most notably is the varied, colourful and over-the-top score of The Golden Mountains (1931). Unfortunately, much of his film music has been lost or only exists now in fragments. 

5. Postal Perfection

According to Shostakovich's daughter Galina, he was "obsessed with cleanliness, a complete perfectionist". He would synchronize all of the clocks in their family apartment, and would regularly send cards to himself to test the efficiency of the postal service.

Fabien Gabel will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday 14 December at the Barbican, performing Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1 with soloist James Ehnes, alongside Ravel La Valse, Panufnik commission and world premiere of Michael Taplin Ebbing Tides and Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition.