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Composed: 1940

Length: c. 35 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambourine), harp, strings, and solo violin

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 18, 1964, Sixten Ehrling conducting, with soloist Edith Peinemann

About this Piece

When the latest compositions began to make their way out of the Soviet Union toward the end of World War II, Khachaturian quickly became an international favorite: a composer who could entertain with lush, Eastern-sounding melodies that had the world singing, dancing, and clapping. The cultural commissars, too, clapped their hands, for this was music that satisfied the basic requirements of Soviet music—it was tuneful, upbeat, accessible, and when a message was needed, he was your man, too. And, the cherry on top: He represented an ethnic minority, the Armenians (he was born to Armenian parents in Georgia), giving credence to the Soviet Union’s loudly broadcast claims of inclusiveness.

The composer began work on his Violin Concerto, dedicated to David Oistrakh, in the summer of 1940, completing it in only two months. When the draft was ready, “the violinist invited me to his country home,” Khachaturian recalled. “I played it for him [on the piano], trying for some degree of synthesis—the harmony with my left hand and the violin part with my right, singing some of the cantilena parts and the violin melody with the entire accompaniment....”

Subsequently, “Oistrakh came to play the Concerto for me,” the composer further reports. “My little cottage was full of people. It was summer and the door to the porch was open. Many musicians were there.... Oistrakh played as if he had been practicing it for months, when in fact it was only a few days...and the same spontaneity marked his playing of it on the concert stage....” which happened for the first time on November 16, 1940, in Moscow, with Alexander Gauk conducting the USSR State Symphony, part of a 10-day festival of Soviet music.

Oistrakh’s first recorded performance became a worldwide favorite immediately after the war, a calling card for the great violinist, who frequently performed it under the composer’s baton and recorded it on several further occasions. The concerto’s high-flying virtuosity, its yearning melodic intensity, its unfamiliar sound world appealed as much to audiences as Oistrakh’s playing of it, which thrilled even those (professional critics, mainly) who found the score “lacking in depth” and perhaps a little too much fun. With the passing of Oistrakh, it began to fade from view until violinists such as Gil Shaham, Julia Fischer, and Sergei Khachatryan championed it in the 1990s.

Oddly, Khachaturian’s general adherence to what the party demanded of all artists, accessibility and optimism, failed to save him from condemnation in 1948 when Andrei Zhdanov, the commissar in charge of approving for general consumption all things artistic, issued a decree condemning Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian as practitioners of “formalism,” nonadherence to Soviet standards of listener-friendliness. Khachaturian would later state, after making a humiliating public apology: “Those were tragic days for me. I was clouted on the head so unjustly. My repenting speech at the First Congress was insincere. I was crushed, destroyed. I seriously considered changing professions.” But he continued composing until shortly before his death in 1978. ―Herbert Glass