Sergei Prokofiev began his Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, opus 19, as a concertino in 1915 but soon abandoned it to work on his opera The Gambler. He returned to the concerto in the summer of 1917. It premiered on October 18, 1923 at the Paris Opera with Marcel Darrieux playing the violin part and the Paris Opera Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. Igor Stravinsky made his debut as conductor at the same concert, conducting the first performance of his own Octet for Wind Instruments.
The concerto is written in three movements:
- Scherzo: Vivacissimo
- Moderato – Andante
Despite the events leading to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and eventually the October Revolution, 1917 became Prokofiev's most productive year compositionally. Along with this concerto he completed the "Classical" Symphony, the Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, and the Visions Fugitives for piano. He also began the cantata Seven, They are Seven, based on Chaldean texts, and worked on the Third Piano Concerto. Nevertheless, Prokofiev continued his habit of incorporating previously composed sections in the violin concerto (something he would also do in the Third Piano Concerto). He composed the concerto's opening melody in 1915, during his love affair with Nina Mescherskaya. The remaining movements were partly inspired by a 1916 Saint Petersburg performance of Karol Szymanowski's Myths by Polish violinist Paul Kochanski.
Its premiere in Paris was a relative failure, partly due to the work being overshadowed by Stravinsky's more modish Octet. The Concerto's premiere had also been delayed some seven years after it had been completed, due to Prokofiev's itinerant existence at that time and the difficulty in finding a soloist. Had the premiere taken place in Petrograd in 1917, as initially planned, Kochanski would have taken the part. By 1923, however, Kochanski was unavailable for the scheduled Paris premiere. Bronisław Huberman would not even look at the score. Nathan Milstein was still in Russia. The violinist who finally tackled the solo part was Sergei Koussevitzky's concertmaster, Marcel Darrieux; although not famous, he was a solid musician and a more than able violinist, which was all that was necessary for a performance (Darrieux also premiered Kurt Weill's Concerto for Violin and Wind Instruments in 1925.) Joseph Szigeti was in the audience, and was so impressed with the work that he took the Concerto into his repertory. The following year Szigeti achieved success when he played the Concerto in Prague with Fritz Reiner as conductor, then toured it around Europe and the United States. However, the U.S. premiere was not played by Szigeti, but by Richard Burgin, the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on 24 April 1925, again under Koussevitzky.
There were also the musical tastes of the Parisian public to consider. Audience members, especially those who came to Koussevitzky concerts, wanted modern music with a certain amount of shock value. The fact that The Rite of Spring had failed a decade earlier was relative—the choreography had been a failure; the music was a success, as proved a few months later when it was heard enthusiastically in concert. While Paris welcomed spiked dissonant works such as the ballet Chout (The Buffoon) and the Scythian Suite, the First Violin Concerto was simply too Romantic in tone for their preferences. The composer Georges Auric even called the work "Mendelssohnian."
The premiere of the work in the Soviet Union is also worth noting since it was given just three days after the Paris premiere by two 19-year-olds, Nathan Milstein and Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz played the orchestral part on the piano. Milstein later wrote in his memoirs, From Russia to the West, "I feel that if you have a great pianist like Horowitz playing with you, you don't need an orchestra." Milstein and Horowitz also introduced Karol Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto at the same concert.
The work opens ethereally, gains momentum and becalms; this describes both the opening movement, and the piece taken as a whole. The three movements begin in D major, E minor, and G minor respectively, and the work closes in a manner similar to that of the opening movement, seeming to climb peacefully. Apart from the solo violin, the concerto is scored for moderate-sized orchestra including two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tambourine, harp, and strings.