Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets do not span his entire creative career, so they cannot therefore be looked upon as a complete record of his development as a composer. Such a claim can, however, be made for the fifteen symphonies, the first of which was completed when he was nineteen. But considered together, the two series show a very clear, if slow, change of emphasis throughout his life: after the end of the war he composed six symphonies and thirteen quartets, whereas up to that time he had produced nine symphonies and only two quartets, and this shift is further reflected by the fact that the earlier quartets tend to be symphonic in conception, with the late symphonies becoming more rarefied and personal, The fact that the composition of the First Quartet (1938) took place after that of the Fifth Symphony immediately demonstrates that Shostakovich the young Socialist Revolutionary never found representation in the medium of the string quartet. That symphony gave clear notice of a modification of style, so if we have no quartet from what was in many ways the most exciting (and certainly least-known) period of his life, at least we can content ourselves with the knowledge that all the quartets date from his real maturity, with experimentation in the past.
Almost every composer of quartets since Beethoven must have been acutely aware of what he had to live up to, and because of this, many first quartets have been delayed until their composers have felt fully equal to the task. But this would not seem to be the case with Shostakovich, whose canon begins with a work which could hardly have been less pretentious. We are told that the first movement started life as a four-page harmony exercise, and the whole work gives the impression of the composer in a relaxed state of mind, turning away from politics and the public eye after the rigorous struggles of the Fifth Symphony. There is a genial and unconcerned serenity here which one rarely finds in this composer’s music, all the more precious because of the work’s brevity. All four movements are much-simplified versions of the normal Classical forms, the second being a set of variations on a theme of pronounced Russian inflexion. The finale is the most complex of the four, yet at the same time the wittiest and most high-spirited, finishing with an irresistible flourish of gay abandon.
The second movement contains the first example in the quartets of instrumental recitative, a device which Shostakovich employed frequently in all types of composition. Its expressive powers are obvious, but why he should use it so often might possibly be traced to the fact that, after his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had been severely criticised by Stalin amongst others in 1935, he never again had the confidence or desire to complete a full-length opera, and so the powerful dramatic instinct inside him found outlets elsewhere. The third and fourth movements are more Russian in character than one usually finds in Shostakovich’s music; the Valse is of a fast, restless type, dark and brooding in tone, bringing to mind a similar movement from Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances of 1940. The finale begins with a short introduction, followed by a theme remarkably similar to that which was the subject of the variations in Quartet No.1. But here we have a movement on an altogether more ambitious scale; these variations are incredibly resourceful and very exciting too, as there is throughout a progressive quickening of tempo from one variation to the next, culminating in the return of the slow introduction before the final grand statement in A minor of the theme itself.
This is the profoundly bitter composer of the war years and after, and the next two movements see his bitterness breaking, firstly into violence and aggression, then into sorrow and despair. As he has done so often in his most elegiac moments, Shostakovich casts this deeply moving Adagio in the form of a passacaglia (a rather freer version this time), all the more eloquent for its pure simplicity. But the tension mounts, becomes almost desperate, and finally collapses as if exhausted; memories linger, and out of them the finale emerges—dark and questioning at first, but slowly growing in confidence. There is a tremendous climax, at which the ground theme from the passacaglia returns, now in canon; this is one of the few passages in Shostakovich’s chamber music where he seems to be straining for more sound than four stringed instruments are capable of. After this, the final pages see the music taking on a limp, muted, quality which is touching in its gentle pathos.
The Third Quartet contains so many Shostakovich fingerprints that it must be considered one of the most characteristic of all his middle-period compositions—characteristic, too, in the directness and sincerity of its message, as summed up in a quotation from the composer himself: ‘Life is beautiful. All that is dark and ignominious will disappear. All that is beautiful will triumph.’
Here too the Jewish flavour which had been suggested at the opening of the quartet now fully reveals itself as the viola leaves its long harmonic C to intone a melody of pronounced eastern character. But if the finale is the focal point of the quartet, then its heart lies in the Andantino—an elegiac romance in F minor whose dreamy tranquillity returns right at the end, leaving us in little doubt as to the predominant mood of a work which had opened in lyrical serenity and incorporated a touch of genuine fun and good humour into its atmospheric scherzo.
The simplicity and directness of this music speak quite clearly enough and require little mundane commentary; yet it should not be forgotten that in 1949 Shostakovich was still burdened by Zhdanov’s now infamous critical attack (see below), so that whatever one might think of the personal element in the later quartets we have here a supreme example of creative objectivity, which is surely a mark of a great artist.
So it was out of this climate that the Fifth Quartet was born, and together with the Tenth Symphony it provides a living monument of this time. It is one of the toughest and most uncompromising of all his quartets — particularly so in the first movement: a truly symphonic Allegro of the type which he longed to achieve in the context of a symphony, but which he felt had still eluded him. In this movement Shostakovich has gone for an altogether more massive quartet sound than usual, but in the light of this and the driving rhythms of the principal musical material the lyrical second subject could hardly be more ideal. A high sustained F on the first violin provides the link to the second movement, in which two main themes of slightly different tempi alternate with each other. It is a sustained chord, rather than a single note, which leads into the finale, and straightaway the second violin intones a wistful melody whose character still seems to belong to the preceding Andante. A more confident-sounding waltz theme heralds the main part of the movement, but as in the opening Allegro the music gradually builds up into an enormously dense and sustained climax in which themes from all three movements are pitted against each other. After the recapitulation the tempo subsides into an Andante in which the introductory theme of the finale returns to guide the work to its quiet but not altogether restful conclusion.
The Lento is a gravely beautiful passacaglia in which the first three variations are polyphonic in texture, as opposed to the more static but no less eloquent ones which follow. This leads straight into the finale which, like the first movement, is in sonata form; both the principal subjects are based on the original three-note motif but there the similarity ends. At the climax of the development section the ground bass from the passacaglia can be heard in canon between the cello and viola; this impassioned music soon gives way to the pastoral intimacy of the beginning — or something near to it, as the mutes now add a strangely elusive quality.
The Eighth Quartet has probably been performed more often than all the rest put together (certainly in the West), and it does indeed provide an ideal introduction to Shostakovich’s music through the medium of the string quartet. It is not, however, truly representative of his quartets up to that time, and is in fact unique in its pronounced programmatic and autobiographical content. It was composed in three days during a visit to Dresden in 1960; that city and its history of devastation inevitably brought to mind the composer’s own terrible wartime experiences during the siege of his beloved ‘Leningrad. The work is inscribed to the ‘memory of the victims of war and Fascism ‘and Shostakovich portrays the inhuman brutality and destruction of war in the wild and relentless Allegro molto. Musical pictorialism is taken a stage further in the fourth movement, whose opening section reputedly intended to depict aircraft and gunfire. The drone of the former disappears a cryptic reference to the Dies irae, whereupon the three lower instruments solemnly intone the melody of an old Russian funeral anthem: ‘Tormented by the weight of bondage you glorify death with honour’ (this dates from about 1870, was a favourite of Lenin’s and so became adopted by the Revolution).
Throughout Shostakovich’s cycle of fifteen quartets can be traced a clear, if gentle, development from the generally outward-looking, classically orientated works of his middle period to the intensely personal and rarefied music of his final years. However, No.9 does not fit quite so conveniently into this pattern, and is therefore difficult to categorise. Categorisation in itself is a decidedly irrelevant pastime in the face of such wonderful music, yet in this case the work’s message seems somewhat ambiguous and unclear. But far from being a disadvantage, it is positively refreshing to be able genuinely to enjoy this basically uncomplicated music. Like No.10, which was completed later the same year (1964), this quartet outwardly resembles the large-scale symphonic quartets of the post-war decade (particularly Nos.3 and 5), but is separated from them chronologically by the Seventh and Eighth, in which originated the introverted style of later years. Inevitably they left their mark on their two immediate successors, but to a far lesser extent in the work under present discussion.
The Tenth Quartet is rather like the head of Janus, in that it looks both backwards and forwards. The simplification of form and texture found in Quartets 7 and 8 had a stronger influence here than on No.9 and it is this which has most affected the character of an otherwise typically middle- period work. The important exception to this is the thickly scored Allegretto furioso, which must be one of the fiercest of a particularly fierce species of scherzo movements. It is preceded by an Andante of the utmost simplicity, so simple in fact that (as Norman Kay has suggested) it seems to form an extended anacrusis to the second movement. As in Quartets 3 and 6, the Adagio is in the form of a strict passacaglia, whose theme reappears in diminution at the climax of the finale (which follows without a break).
Quartet No.10 is one of Shostakovich’s most serene and untroubled compositions, and even if the sustained violence of the second movement creates a momentarily disturbing effect, the composer’s state of mind at the time would seem to indicate that evil, although it cannot be ignored, is no match for deeper human emotions. As the music finally melts into silence there is certainly no trace of ‘furioso’.
Certain people have been bold enough to suggest a parallel between the late string quartets of Shostakovich and those of Beethoven, although they do not together make such a clearly defined group as do Beethoven’s; whereas fourteen years separate the composition of the latter’s Op.95 Quartet from his Op.127 no such fallow period occurred in Shostakovich’s career; from 1956 until his death he averaged one quartet every two years. However, his last four quartets do in many ways stand apart from the rest, and although the foundations of their emotional and spiritual world had to a certain extent been laid from No.7 onwards, it is No.12 (1968) which emphatically marks the point of departure. These quartets do form the backbone of his final period of creativity, yet equal recognition must be given to the last two symphonies and the two late sonatas with piano (for violin and viola respectively). There are two important characteristics which all these works share with each other: firstly, they show the ageing composer totally withdrawn into his own private world, obsessed with thoughts of approaching death; secondly, they represent a widening of his musical language, influenced to a considerable extent by the use of twelve-note rows and the greater degree of harmonic and melodic flexibility which these give rise to. In this respect the progression from the basically diatonic Eleventh Quartet to the completely atonal opening bar of the Twelfth points clearly to the changes which had taken place.
As this subsides onto a chord of A major an extraordinary passage emerges with another new note-row played pizzicato; this grows even more insistent, building slowly towards another massive climax which eventually explodes over into violent chords containing all twelve semitones. After a reference to the Adagio chant the music looks back even further to the first subject material of the opening movement, reflecting nostalgically on the past before the final great assault is made; slowly and questioningly the germ-cell comes to life again and there begins a long, controlled crescendo which is surely one of the most serenely joyful passages Shostakovich ever wrote. What, at the beginning of the movement, was once crazy and without tonality is now surely and confidently in D flat, and now that the struggle has been won the quartet goes wild with exultation.
Referring back two paragraphs, it is somewhat paradoxical that the Twelfth Quartet is virtually the only major work of Shostakovich’s final years which is not predominantly dark in tone; indeed, it is one of the most virile and powerful of all his compositions, striking a note of genuine heroicism which is so sadly missing from all that followed. Such is the final tragedy of the man that never again did he feel moved to express in his music such a tremendous zest for living.
Quartets 11 to 14 were dedicated in turn to each of the original members of the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble which gave the first performances of all the quartets from No.2 onwards. No.13 was for Vadim Borisovsky, the viola player, and No.14 (1972-73) was inscribed to the cellist Sergei Shirinsky; in each of these two works the appropriate instrument is given an unusually prominent part to play, particularly in No.14, where the cello is responsible for the initial presentation of all the main material in the first movement, as well as providing the heart and soul of the climaxes in the second and third; significantly, the quartet ends with a return of the passionate central section of the Adagio, with the serene cello always singing above the other instruments. Shostakovich has always attached great importance to the individuality of his four players as well as their corporate role in the ensemble, and in this work he seems privately to greet each player with a number of short recitative-like passages in concertante style. Throughout the work the textures have become even more rarefied than in No.13, although formally it is more traditional in design. On the surface it may even seem to be rather diffuse in comparison, especially as the deceptively light-hearted opening gives no clue to the emotional course which the music will later follow. However, there is a very subtle unity about this work, which originates in the repeated viola notes at the very beginning: these notes reappear (under varying disguises) at several significant points, making their final appearance just a few bars from the end. Perhaps the finale seems the most problematical movement, but it is important that it should be seen primarily in relation to the work as a whole rather than as an individual piece; the composer helps us in this way by leading into it without a break from the Adagio.
The second movement is heralded by a succession of shrieks from each instrument in turn, these alternating with a macabre serenade which limps along as if it had lost all sense of direction, eventually losing itself in a barely audible pedal-note on the cello. The Intermezzo explodes violently but subsides just as quickly, the cello having remained unmoved throughout, as if no longer conscious of what is happening round him. Now follows the bitter-sweet Nocturne, its plaintive melody sadly weaving its way through gently undulating shadows; towards the end an ominous-sounding rhythm is tapped out pizzicato by the violins, and this proves to be a premonition of the Funeral March, which is now emphatically announced by all four instruments together. But the main part of the movement is entirely solo, each strain being punctuated, as if by a refrain, by the march rhythm. The finale seems to be no longer of this world; it erupts like the Intermezzo, but amid a succession of weird mutterings, tappings, wailings, and tremblings, manages only to recall blurred memories of earlier parts of the work. The semitonal trill is an ever-present spectre, perhaps symbolizing the death-obsession which haunted virtually all the major works of the composer’s last six or seven years; eventually it leads the way to the final chant, through it, and beyond it into nothingness.
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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.
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.
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.
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?
The bright pluck of pizzicato on one violin answers the other’s open strings; below the brutal lyricism, the cello sustains the bass notes. Mostec forest, Golovec hill—you picture yourself standing there, pissing like a boy. And now you bleed like a woman. And ever since that first time you’ve longed to be held in her arms, just like when you were a little girl. Yet when she reaches out to you, you withdraw, burying beneath your resistance the longing she evokes in you.
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.