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String Quartet No 8, Op. 110

Part Eight Chapter 2

Listen! The hair of the bow across the string sends a thrill up your spine: A motif on the cello, played by your mother, opens Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet. Off-centre, front row, you sit between strangers in the Philharmonic Hall, sheltered in the penumbra of the stage lights. Unfolding the elegiac opening, violins and viola come in to join the cello. That’s his signature, your mother had explained, that four-note figure is Shostakovich signing his name.

On a black cord, a black shimmer: The choker Daddy bought you in Milan. You two were always so in love, ever since I can remember. Wedding photo: Two love-struck teenagers, holding hands. And the next year—at twenty!—you had me.

Edvard Munch, Wedding of the Bohemian, 1925-30

Modigliani, Girl with Blue Eyes, 1918

Beneath a singing violin your mother insinuates a dark bass line. Why did I scream when I saw you wearing his sweater last Sunday? Why did I throw your glass of wine against the wall? Oh Mama, what will become of us? Against a shifting accompaniment, the cello descends in register and solemnly intones a fragment of melody. When you had calmed me in your arms you told me that not once did you and Daddy go to sleep when you were angry with each other: You would always make it up in some way, even if only by a stolen touch. With increasing urgency Katja’s bow strokes the strings. And now, Mama, when you’re in your bed, you have only Zaspanec purring beside you. The violins attempt a gesture of closure, but the melodic figure crescendos and remains incomplete.

 A slow upbow of the second violin fills the hall with pent-up power, and then the ensemble feeds the ferocity of Shostakovich’s rage: A percussive attack of monolithic chords underpins a frenzied melodic line. Onward it drives, inexorable, in a headlong rush to—nowhere. I’ve felt it myself, that futile rage. The horrible, impossible news, that morning in Rovinj. Reminisce, dizziness, loneliness! The relentless fortissimo of the dactylic rhythm drives you deeper into yourself. Daddy, your memories drowned when you did, but look how mine have a hold on me: Over The Garden of Earthly Delights I glide my magnifying glass, delighting in the little creatures, making the monsters the heroes of the stories we’d invent.

The punctuating chords transfer to the viola and cello, leaving the violins to breathlessly bear witness—to what? And now the signature phrase on the first violin begins what becomes a ghostly waltz. Daddy, they say Shostakovich, on the eve of joining the Communist Party, wrote the 8th String Quartet as a suicide note. He’d been cornered in his cat-and-mouse game with Stalin. Oh Daddy, your parents were murdered by the Party to whose glory your gold medals are dedicated! And what suicide note did you leave for me?

Kandinsky, Concenté, 1937

Kandinksy, Heavy between Light, 1935

As the falling contours of the principal theme recur, you find a light in the darkness: In the kitchen late at night, her bare feet propped up on a chair, your mother sits in front of the open refrigerator. Its coolness is no match for the heat, its light is the only light in the room.

̶  Mum, I can’t sleep.
̶  Neither can I.

She pulls out a chair. Before you sit down you pour yourself a raspberry and mint concoction your mother had made. You’d spent the morning together, sorting through your father’s belongings. Invading his solitude or letting it be, lucidly choosing or blindly disposing—each alternative brought unease. And yet, as you drop an ice cube into your glass, you think you’re going to make it, adjusting to your new-found state as a family of two.

Look how close to the bridge her fingers press the strings! Ghostly timbre of high tessitura. Mama, I can’t go on with this! Let’s go out. Wanting to silence your thought in movement but still be with your mother, you went running together along the Trail of Remembrance (once the path of a barbed wire fence).

The dynamics reduce, the timbre mutes; turned in on itself, the movement ebbs into shadowy silence. Rat-a-tat-tat! Triplets of fortissimo chords irrupt into the repose. Violate! Apprehend! Interdict! Neither the red nor the brown, but lucidity and courage in the maelstrom: Shostakovich’s invocation.

As the largo floats into an arioso, you watch your mother inscribe into the lyrical flow the subtleties she teases from the strings. God, Mom, you’re beautiful! ‘My beauty is an accident. It’s something I accommodate, like the weather’. Remember the guy who pedalled his bike straight into a pond, unable to take his eyes off you?

John Singer Sargent, Venetian Model (study), 1882

John Singer Sargent, Elsie Palmer (study), 1889

And then the circle is complete: Your mother plays Shostakovich’s signature motif, just as it was played at the beginning. The viola launches the finale; the final movement unfolds. Beauty and sorrow, and a sense of farewell, intermingle in your heart. What are you saying goodbye to? Your childhood? Your confidence? Your faith in the future?

The muted timbres of the music leave you in your reverie. Studying the lines of the second violinist’s face, you wonder if he has a daughter. If so, what kind of a father is he? And what kind of husband? Has he ever betrayed his wife? You look at your mother, underpinning the violins with the dark timbre of her cello. I love her so. And I alone know about Laura.

Pianissimo, the music distils its subtleties. In your body you feel its vibration, a velvety buzz in your bas-ventre: Were it darker, you’d put your hand between your legs. ‘J’aime l’horreur d’être vierge et je veux vivre parmi l’effroi que me font mes cheveux.’ Is that Mallarmé or Rimbaud? Before you can decide, you realize the music is dissolving into silence: The 8th Quartet is over. As the applause comes thundering down, you stand up and join in the ovation.