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Inside the Music

Behind the Score: Shostakovich, Oistrakh and the Ukraine Connection

Violinist David Oistrakh
Violinist David Oistrakh

By Michael Cirigliano II

As audience members file into Orchestra Hall for this week’s Minnesota Orchestra concerts, many will know they’re about to hear one of the great concertos of the 20th century, Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. But what about the story behind the score?

Aside from its revered status as a showcase for virtuosity and expression, the concerto is an example of artistic resilience in the face of oppression, and a testament to the deep friendship between two musicians: the Saint Petersburg-born Shostakovich, and the concerto’s dedicatee, David Oistrakh, who was born, raised and trained in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa. 

Gateway to the world

A cosmopolitan, economic powerhouse at the time of Oistrakh’s birth in 1908, Odesa had become a gateway to the world—a diverse city of cross-cultural currents, where discussions of music and art, politics and Ukrainian independence filled its sea of bustling cafes. For Oistrakh, who grew up in a musical Jewish family, his relationship with the violin eclipsed even his earliest memories. “However hard I try,” he wrote in his memoirs, “I can’t recall ever having been without a violin during my childhood.”

After receiving his first violin—one-eighth the size of a standard instrument—at three years old, he progressed quickly, making his public debut at six and entering the Odesa Conservatory at 15. While in school, Oistrakh gave concerts in Odesa and across what is today central Ukraine, including a performance of Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in Kyiv with the composer conducting.

A dangerous balancing act

In 1927, Oistrakh made his move to Moscow, where over the coming years he became one of the Soviet Union’s most famous cultural figures. But like many Soviet artists at the time, Oistrakh’s prominent role in the regime’s culture proved a dangerous balancing act. The Communist State strategized his career like a political chess piece, controlling where he performed and with whom for nearly 30 years.

Then there was the matter of Oistrakh’s heritage. As a Soviet citizen “of Jewish origin” (the language used in Soviet passports), he was vulnerable to the violent antisemitism running rampant under Stalin. Oistrakh was made to publicly pledge allegiance to the State while secretly confessing to close friends that he still thought in Yiddish. As the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich said, “The [Soviet] regime forced people to have two faces, to think in one way and to appear in another.”

That critical duality found a kindred spirit in Shostakovich, who had endured an emotionally crippling see-saw of both praise and condemnation from the State. Although he was in the regime’s good graces when he began furiously working on a commission for Oistrakh in the summer of 1947, by the time Shostakovich was working on the final two movements six months later, his music was again under siege.

After the end of World War II, the Soviet Union enacted the Zhdanov Doctrine, brutal cultural policies named for the Central Committee secretary Andrey Zhdanov, who had denounced Shostakovich’s work for years. Shostakovich’s new violin concerto quickly became too dangerous to perform, given the renewed scrutiny of Soviet composers—and the Jewish folk tune Shostakovich had used in its scherzo, likely a coded protest of the State-sanctioned persecution of Jews. The score lived under lock and key in his desk drawer for seven years.

The concerto survives

During that period of silence, Oistrakh advised Shostakovich on changes to the solo part and orchestration—including a plea to have the orchestra take over the opening of the Burlesque, so Oistrakh could “wipe the sweat off my brow” after the Herculean cadenza. Oistrakh was thrilled with the piece, which he said gave him “ample opportunities not only to demonstrate virtuosity but also to reveal deep feelings, thoughts, and moods.”

The concerto received its long-delayed premiere to rapturous ovation in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death. After surviving years of secrecy, Shostakovich’s work had won the hearts of the people. His close friendship with Oistrakh would yield more fruit: a second concerto and a sonata for violin and piano, both written to honor Oistrakh's 60th birthday.

Oistrakh’s travels and legacy

In late 1955, Oistrakh was finally allowed to perform in the United States. Already well known to American music lovers thanks to his prolific recordings, he was welcomed by audiences who turned out in droves, with more than 7,000 people lining up for tickets for his Carnegie Hall debut. And here in Minneapolis, Oistrakh appeared twice with the Minnesota Orchestra—then known as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra—in December 1955 (the Tchaikovsky Concerto under Antal Dorati) and December 1965 (Beethoven's concerto under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski).

Violinist David Oistrakh in 1955 with Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra musicians Rafael Druian and Henry Kramer.
A signed 1955 photo of David Oistrakh with then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Rafael Druian and Assistant Concertmaster Henry Kramer.

(In a further Minnesota Orchestra connection, David’s son Igor, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a violinist, also performed twice here, including a performance of Shostakovich’s First Concerto at Orchestra Hall in 1975.)

Nearly 50 years after Oistrakh’s death, his musical legacy endures—the powerful tone he produced, his polished yet fiery virtuosity, and his humble, teddy-bear-like demeanor, which contrasts the perilous circumstances of his career as a Soviet artist. Even in the midst of war and oppression, Oistrakh’s artistry provided people with solace, strength and joy—including his good friend Shostakovich.

After the First Concerto’s premiere in Leningrad, the usually meek, hand-wringing composer enjoyed a rare fit of glee. Toasting the occasion with friends over stale pies and vodka served in plastic mugs, he paced around his apartment, muttering again and again, “I am so glad, so happy. I'm so utterly, utterly happy.”

Michael Cirigliano II is a freelance copywriter and arts journalist. He has written for the Cleveland Orchestra, Oregon Symphony, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Minnesota Orchestra performs Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto on April 7 and 8, with Ning Feng as soloist and Kevin John Edusei leading a program that also includes works by Samy Moussa and Maurice Ravel. Tickets are available for online purchase.