Joshua Bell

Program Notes

Dvořák: Violin Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8

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Antonín Dvořák

Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53 

Work composed: 1879; rev. 1879–83
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 25, 2010; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Chee-Yun, violin
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 31 minutes

“Would you like to write a violin concerto for me? Highly original, tuneful, and for good violinists? Let me know what you think!” When Antonín Dvořák received this suggestion from publisher Fritz Simrock in January 1879, he jumped at the opportunity. Dvořák was not an unusually slow composer, and he had studied violin as a child, so he was both familiar and comfortable with the instrument. However, it took him more than four years to complete his violin concerto.

Joseph Joachim was one of the 19th century’s greatest violinists and a child prodigy (he performed Beethoven’s violin concerto under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn at age 12). Joachim was also the inspiration for several major violin concertos, including those of Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann. Dvořák valued Joachim’s opinion and experience; after finishing the first draft, Dvořák sent it to Joachim, who advised a number of changes, some of them substantial. As Dvořák explained in a letter to Simrock, “At his [Joachim’s] request, I have revised the whole concerto; not a single bar has been left unaltered. I have no doubt that he will be pleased with what I have done. I have taken immense trouble over it. The whole concerto has now assumed a different aspect.” After this first revision, Dvořák undertook a second, in 1882, to address Joachim’s misgivings about the dense orchestration (Joachim worried that “not even the fullest tone” from the soloist would be discernible). “Although the work proves that you know the violin well,” Joachim wrote, “certain details make it clear that you have not played it yourself for some time.” Despite these concerns, Joachim remained a strong supporter of Dvořák’s music. In a letter to Dvořák, Joachim wrote, “While working on this revision I was struck by the many beauties of your work, which it will be a pleasure for me to perform.”

As it happened, Joachim did not premiere the concerto; he was scheduled to present Opus 53 in London in 1884, but that concert was cancelled. Perhaps Joachim remained unsatisfied with the concerto, even after Dvořák’s careful revisions, because he never played Dvořák’s concerto publicly. It is possible Joachim chose not to perform the concerto because, as a musician of extremely conservative tastes, he did not care for Dvořák’s unusual structural choices. There are three movements, but the first two, which contrast the energy and power of the orchestra with the singing lyricism of the solo violin, are played without pause. The finale showcases two Czech folk dances: a wild furiant and a gentle dumka.

In the past, violinists have treated Dvořák’s Opus 53 like the redheaded stepchild of the concerto repertoire. In a June 2019 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Joshua Bell explained, “I grew up hearing [Dvořák’s Violin Concerto] at summer camps and heard all sorts of comments about how it wasn’t his best piece and wasn’t one of the great concertos, and that it wasn’t as good as his cello concerto. I didn’t give it a chance. Once I started taking a deeper look at it – and Dvořák is one of my absolute favorite composers – I came to think it’s on the same level as the Cello Concerto.” Bell also acknowledged the challenges of Dvořák’s non-idiomatic writing for violin. “It doesn’t lie well in the hands, as there are some technical difficulties. Some passages are just awkward to play. And if it’s not played with the right approach structurally, it can sound like a lot of passagework … The Slavic elements [in Dvorak’s music] are really important, and his concerto is often played a little too squarely, like the way people think Brahms should be played … At the moment I’m really in love with the piece. The slow movement is as good as anything written for the violin. And it delivers on every level, beautiful tunes, an exciting ending ... it’s all there.”


Dmitri Shostakovich

Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 65 

Work composed: 1943
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: May 6, 2007; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, and strings
Estimated duration: 67 minutes

“Music has a great advantage: without mentioning anything, it can say everything,” remarked writer Ilya Ehrenburg after the first performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. The tragic nature of this music is, as Shostakovich explained, “an echo” of the appalling events of World War II. Shostakovich wrote the Eighth Symphony in approximately forty days during the summer of 1943; its five movements last over an hour.

Although Symphony No. 8 was politely received at its premiere, on November 4, 1943, Soviet critics later decried its tragic depiction of the horrors of World War II. At a Soviet musical conference five years after its completion, the Eighth Symphony was criticized, in typically Stalinist fashion, for its “extreme subjectivism,” “unrelieved gloom,” and “willful complexity.” Andrei Zhdanov of the Central Committee of the Communist Party sneered, “From the point of view of the People, the Eighth is not a musical work at all; it is a ‘composition’ which has nothing whatever to do with art.” The Eighth Symphony, first performed by the State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky, was part of the Festival of Soviet Music’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the USSR. Zhdanov’s comments may be a reflection of his disappointment that the mood of the Eighth did not adequately venerate such a significant moment in Soviet history. Shostakovich replied to his critics, “In my opinion, [the Eighth Symphony was] quite in the order of things.”

The late music critic Michael Steinberg called the overall sound of the Eighth Symphony “hard-edged and lean rather than lush.” This description is particularly true of the Adagio, a passionate outburst of epic length and scope. The stark, angular melodies tend toward the outermost upper and lower ends of the orchestra’s pitch range, which evokes an emotional desolation. The music builds from a quiet dirge in the lower strings to shrieks of anguish from the upper strings and brasses. The sharp retorts of a snare drum portray military strength, while the haunting English horn solo suggests a survivor wandering over a battlefield littered with dead soldiers.

The Allegretto, in scherzo form, recasts several elements of the first movement in a bizarre self-parody: once again the low strings begin, overlaid by oddly jaunty winds and brasses (a grotesque transformation from their agony of the first movement). The piccolo’s mocking solo is mimicked by a clarinet and later the entire wind section; the Trio features a derisive dance for solo trombone and fortissimo strings.

The Allegro non troppo’s relentlessly pulsing stream of notes bombard the ear like the rat-a-tat of gunfire. The unceasing rhythm suggests unmitigated brutality and the mirthless laughter of an officer torturing a prisoner in a cell. For the Largo, which begins with a shriek, Shostakovich wrote a Baroque passacaglia, a repeating bass line derived from the opening theme of the first movement. This unchanging bass line repeats numerous times, each repetition accompanied by a melodic variation. The eerily hushed music’s final variation (pizzicato strings and flutter-tongued flutes) sends a chill up the spine.

The clarinets ease into the final Allegretto without pause. This music is by turns intimate and grandiose; interludes for solo instruments are contrasted by the war music and anguished screams of the brasses of earlier movements. For the first time Shostakovich employs a major key, injecting a ray of hope. Shostakovich said of his Eighth Symphony, “I can describe the philosophical concept of my new symphony very briefly: Life remains beautiful. All that is dark and oppressive will disappear; all that is beautiful will triumph.” The final movement expresses the triumph of that beauty over inhumanity and terror.


© 2020 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media.