The following text constitutes Alan George’s liner notes to the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s recording of the complete Shostakovich quartets (Decca, 1994).
All images in this section are from Stalker (1979), a film by Andrei Tarkovsky – another Soviet artist of whom the Party did not approve.
Dmitri Shostakovich, 1943
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.
Having established that there is no ‘early’ quartet by Shostakovich, it is both possible and desirable to divide the series into two groups, corresponding to the familiar ‘middle’ and ‘late’ periods of such composers as Beethoven and Mahler. The division is by no means an equal one, neither is it particularly clear-cut. But the last four quartets do seem to belong so inexorably to each other, presenting four entirely contrasting aspects of something common to them all, that they must be seen apart from the rest. Inevitably a group of eleven compositions will be more wide-ranging than a group of four, and so it is that, within the confines of a particularly individual and recognisable musical language, these first eleven quartets could hardly represent a more varied experience. Generally they tend to be outward-looking in spirit, and although they are certainly not without their moments of sadness and melancholy they are often robust and occasionally light-hearted. At the root of all this is an almost constant allegiance to Classical form and structure, allied to a never-failing grasp of what constitutes truly idiomatic quartet writing. It should be noted that, unlike Beethoven and Bartok, Shostakovich never sought to strain the medium beyond its already existing limits: indeed, he accepted it for what it was, gradually refining and sublimating it. In this respect he can hardly be considered to have expanded the technique of the string quartet, though whether or not he increased its expressive range is an entirely different matter.
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.
Shostakovich did not write another quartet for six years, during which time many of the nations of Europe had been contriving to blow each other to pieces. Surprisingly, the Second Quartet (1944) reflects very little of this, in contrast to the two enormous symphonies (No.7—the ‘Leningrad’—and No.8) which he had composed during this period. Perhaps at this stage he had not yet achieved the flexibility in the medium which the Third Quartet (1946) so powerfully demonstrates, relating much more to the composer’s wartime experiences, almost like a delayed reaction. However, No.2 still seems worlds removed from No.1: it is over twice as long, considerably more wide-ranging, and generally made of a far tougher fibre. This is nowhere more apparent than in the first movement, the entire exposition of which is played forte or louder. In fact this is the only one of the first four quartets in which the first movement carries the sort of weight (in relation to the other movements) which was the custom with the Classical composers.
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.
The Third, like the Second, is one of the longest of Shostakovich’s quartets, and although it hardly compares in size with the symphonies composed in the preceding years it is conceived very much on a symphonic scale. It was, in fact, the last of a group of works (including Symphonies 8 and 9 and the Piano Quintet) in which Shostakovich had used a basic layout of five movements. However, the opening of the quartet could hardly be described as ‘symphonic’; indeed, apart from the extremely terse double-fugue which forms its development section, the first movement would seem to give little indication of what is to follow. So, after the hilarious conclusion of this ‘prelude’, the beginning of the next movement presents rather a shock; humour now wears a totally different face: innocent wit has turned sour, and we are confronted with a grim and sardonic waltz.
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.’
The Fourth Quartet was composed three years after No.3 (in 1949) and presents a totally different portrait of its composer; no tragedy, no heroics, no formal innovations; simply a work of exceptional beauty and lucidity presented in a formal framework of perfect proportions. Instrumental colour is exploited very subtly and imaginatively, and Shostakovich allows his powers of melodic invention to flower in truly memorable fashion. Yet at the end of this thoroughly warm-hearted piece of music, one has to admit that it is also a work of considerable stature—an impression which can easily be lost if the performers fail to observe the composer’s metronome marks, over which he took so much care. In this work, they are particularly important as they give a clue to the character of each movement where the tempo designations themselves offer little distinction; and so the finale turns out to be a much slower, bigger, and more powerful piece than might have been anticipated, so that the shape of the work as a whole is clearly directed towards this heavy-footed dance.
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.
1947 saw the thirtieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and the leading Soviet composers were obviously expected to celebrate this event with great creative fervour. This they did not do (although Shostakovich managed to produce a somewhat bloated cantata, Poem of the Fatherland— hardly one of his most convincing or representative works). The result of this ‘political apathy’ on the part of the composers was a brutal attack of mammoth proportions by the Soviet authorities, led by Zhdanov, in which such figures as Prokofiev, Mayakovski and Shostakovich himself were accused of being ‘deviationist’, ‘occupied by private whims’, ‘pathologically discordant’ and other choice sins. Being such an exceptionally sensitive and introspective person, Shostakovich was profoundly shaken by this onslaught, as he had been by a similar attack back in the ‘thirties. As a result, he offered no new major work for performance until after Stalin’s death in 1953, when the First Violin Concerto (1947-48), the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets (1949 and 1952 respectively) and the Tenth Symphony (1953) all quickly appeared within the space of a few months.
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.
Quartet No.6 (1956) inhabits an altogether different world from its predecessor, although admittedly four years had elapsed since the composition of the latter — four years of crucial significance in Soviet history which saw (amongst other things) the end of one regime and the dawn of a new era. This quartet is fresh and untroubled, opening in childlike simplicity and pastoral gaiety; apart from a mini-crisis in the first movement and a sustained climax in the finale this deliciously genial mood is maintained throughout the work. And it was surely this spirit of good humour, rather than any superficial attempt at cleverness, which gave rise to the idea of concluding all four movements with the same distinctive cadence. The form of the quartet is cyclic in that rhythmic and melodic elements which appear at the opening are used throughout the work — particularly the three-note motif of the first main theme. The diatonic nature of this melody is predominant for the greater part of the first movement and also for much of the second, although the chromatic lines of the central section of the latter impart a dream-like remoteness which is reminiscent of the corresponding movement in Symphony No.9.
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.
Mention has already been made of the general character of the first eleven quartets, but with No.7 a more personal element has crept in. The work was written in 1960 in memory of Shostakovich’s first wife, Nina Vasilyevna, and it is possible that her death may have been the original cause of a gradual withdrawal into himself, resulting in music which became increasingly introspective. This quartet does contain many more tangible pointers towards his later style of composition, not least in terms of sound and colour: passages for one solo instrument are hardly less frequent than those in which all four are playing. With the exception of six bars the entire second movement is written in two or three parts only, the viola and cello being doubled at the octave in the only other passage in which all four instruments take part. The first movement consists of a normal exposition of two main themes which are then immediately recapitulated, the grotesque first subject being changed into triple metre and played pizzicato. This music reappears in the closing section of the work — a strange waltz-like piece whose principal melody is a transformation of the main subject of the relentlessly wild fugue which had preceded it; this in its turn had developed out of the viola accompaniment at the end of the Lento.
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).
The autobiographical element in the work originates in the use of self-quotations from earlier compositions, as if the composer were reliving times past; these appear at significant points along its course, and include references to Symphonies 1, 5 and 10, the First Cello Concerto, the Second Piano Trio (the section associated with the crime at Majdanek), and, most poignant of all, an aria from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (later revised as Katerina Ismailova). In addition to these quotations virtually the entire work is based on a four-note motif derived from the German transliteration of the composer’s own name (D. SCHostakowitsch, i.e. DSCH, the German names for the notes D, E flat, C, B) — a kind of musical signature in the tradition of Bach, Schumann, and others. It first appears at the very opening, as the subject of a fugal lament (seemingly paying homage to Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet, op.131); this leads to the main part of the movement: a quiet, contemplative elegy. The timelessness of this music is interrupted by the Allegro, which moves at tremendous pace; here the DSCH figure appears at differing speeds, sometimes endlessly repeated as a fast accompaniment to a slower melodic version. Next, the motif is transformed into a sardonic but humorous waltz melody, simply though effectively scored; in the fourth movement it appears only once, leading us out of the blitz onto an enormous pedal-point which supports the emotional climax of the work: the violins sing a serene duet, followed high on the cello by the Lady Macbeth extract. The final Largo is based on material from the first movement, which gradually becomes despairingly impassioned, only to fade away into numbed but dignified silence.
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 whimsical quality of the opening bars persists right through the first movement, only rarely rising above a mezzo-piano, and simply intensifies for the ensuing Adagio, which is entirely homophonic in texture; it begins with a brief but poignant viola solo, as if recalling the sixth movement of Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet. There follows a fleet scherzo, muted at first, which is characterised by a wry humour so typical of Shostakovich. The fourth movement enters into a very strange world of melancholy intoning and expressive recitative, whose rather vicious-sounding pizzicato chords look forward to a passage in the Twelfth Quartet. These effects reappear in the finale, but by now the mood has changed completely and the quartet ends with a high-spirited Allegro of the type which appears all too rarely in Shostakovich’s later compositions. The work is played without a break, and is further unified by a complex system of thematic relationships which belie the outward character of the piece; this process is nowhere more apparent than in the figure of a falling semitone which links all the movements together (physically and thematically), with the exception of the first to the second. The Ninth Quartet was dedicated to Shostakovich’s wife Irina, whom he married in 1962.
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’.
The Eleventh Quartet was composed in 1966 and dedicated to the memory of Vassily Petrovich Shirinsky who, as second violinist of the Beethoven String Quartet, had taken part in the first performances of virtually all this work’s predecessors. Not surprisingly, the character of the music is predominantly elegiac, but in a rather different way to what one might normally expect of a memorial piece: apart from the Elegy there is little trace of the sorrow or tragedy which one naturally associates with death; instead the music has a strangely withdrawn, almost whimsical feeling, which in the end is deeply touching. In this way, it strongly resembles the Seventh Quartet, which arose out of similar circumstances, and for which the composer had a special affection. Those who know Shostakovich only through his large-scale symphonies will find here an aspect of his musical personality which might mildly surprise them.
The quartet takes the form of a short suite of seven continuous movements; the texture is as simple as could be imagined, being for the most part no more than straightforward melody-with-accompaniment. The danger of diffuseness is avoided by basing the whole work on a very small number of thematic ideas, so that all the movements bear a strong relationship to each other—though in a more subtle way than is at first apparent. So although this is not a work on which Shostakovich’s powers of composition should ultimately be judged, its peculiar haunting quality—and its unquestionable sincerity—make it an experience of memorable significance.
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.
In fact Quartet No.12 is far from being a genuinely atonal composition; tonality is still at the heart of the matter, but in this context the atonality originating in the first bar is a principal source of the tensions and conflicts which are engendered later in the work. The first movement begins in a mood of quiet but noble sadness; it is cast in the usual sonata form, with the second subject easily distinguishable from the first through a tempo change (so characteristic of late Beethoven) and a shift from firm D flat major to a new note-row whose presence robs the remainder of the exposition of any tonal centre. These same distinctions between the two subject groups apply right through the movement, and it is the first of them which has the final word. The second movement is a tremendously wide-ranging piece, yet at the same time superbly unified. Its principal germ-cell is the figure of four semiquavers with which it opens and which entirely dominates the first main section, generating its vital rhythmic drive. It eventually dies away on the cello, which now breaks into a long soliloquy, punctuated by a muted chant in parallel triads from the other players which gradually assumes equal importance as a climax is reached.
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.
After the magnificent conclusion of No.12, Quartet No.13 (1970) presents an aspect of life which the former work would seem to have banished forever; indeed, at the end one cannot escape the overwhelming impression that this is one of the most disturbing things Shostakovich ever wrote. Like Nos.7 and 8, it is constructed in arch-form, but the degree of unity is now so advanced that the work is compressed into a single extended movement in which the pulse remains unchanged throughout; the basic tempo is Adagio, with a central section which moves at exactly double speed. At the opening the solo viola presents a twelve-note row whose melodic intervals form the basis of almost all the subsequent material. A highly characteristic rhythm tapped out by the first violin over a pedal announces the doubling of tempo: the rhythm becomes more and more obsessive until it is eventually hammered out in chords of superimposed minor ninths, which are then scattered into pizzicato Klangfarbenmelodie. The next 140 bars are entirely dominated by a rhythmic ostinato figure which characterises a rather grey, monotonous landscape, recalling certain passages of Sibelius. The remorseless and inevitable tread of time is further emphasised by percussion effects produced by tapping the bow on the belly of the instrument. The extended three-part trills which follow provide what must be the most uncomfortable moment of all in a work whose darkness seems utterly impenetrable by even the faintest ray of hope. (Semitonal trills became another late obsession, as will be seen in the epilogue of the Fifteenth Quartet). After a heart-rending recapitulation of the opening themes the viola emerges once more to carry the music higher and higher, as if to disappear…
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.
Quartet No.15 was completed in the autumn of 1974 — less than a year before Shostakovich’s death on 9 August 1975. It was his last quartet, succeeded only by a sonata for viola and piano and two song-cycles (including the Michelangelo Suite). It was first performed by the Taneyev Quartet, and subsequently received its first British performance, by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, in Manchester on 5 March 1975.
The work consists of six Adagios, all joined together, and although Shostakovich achieves a remarkable variety within the one tempo designation there is little to relieve the all-pervading deathly gloom. Time almost stands still in the opening Elegy, which has a truly Russian intonation to its melody and harmony, sometimes recalling Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky, with even a faint echo of Russian Orthodox chant in its central section.
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.
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.
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?
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? 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.
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.
Source: Dmitry Shostakovich & Isaak Glikman, Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, 1941–1975, tr. Anthony Phillips (Cornell University Press, 2001).
For the sake of concision, I have deleted the opening and closing pleasantries from the letter.
19 July 1960 Zhukovka
Dear Isaak Davïdovich!
Dresden was an ideal set-up for getting down to creative work. I stayed in the spa town of Gohrisch, which is just near a little place called Königstein, about 40 kilometres from Dresden. A place of incredible beauty – as it should be, the whole area being known as ‘the Switzerland of Saxony’. The good working conditions justified themselves: I composed my Eighth Quartet. As hard as I tried to rough out the film score which I am supposed to be doing, I still haven’t managed to get anywhere; instead I wrote this ideologically depraved quartet which is of no use to anybody. I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself. The title page could carry the dedication: ‘To the memory of the composer of this quartet’. The basic theme of the quartet is the four notes D natural, E flat, C natural, B natural – that is, my initials, D. SCH. The quartet also uses themes from some of my own compositions and the Revolutionary song ‘Tormented by Grievous Bondage’.
The themes from my own works are as follows: from the First Symphony, the Eighth Symphony, the [Second Piano] Trio, the Cello Concerto, and Lady Macbeth. There are hints of Wagner (the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung) and Tchaikovsky (the second subject of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony). Oh yes, l forgot to mention that there is something else of mine as well, from the Tenth Symphony. Quite a nice little hodge-podge, really. It is a pseudo-tragic quartet, so much so that while I was composing it I shed the same amount of tears as I would have had to pee after half-a-dozen beers. When I got home, I tried a few times to play it through, but always ended up in tears. This was of course a response not to the pseudo-tragedy so much as to my own wonder at its superlative unity of form. But here you may detect a touch of self-glorification, which no doubt will soon pass and leave in its place the usual self-critical hang-over.
The quartet is now with the copyists, and soon I hope the Beethovens and I will be able to start work on it.
During the last ten days of June 1960, Shostakovich came to Leningrad and stayed with his sister Mariya rather than at the Yevropeiskaya Hotel as he usually did. It became clear later that there was a reason for this. On 28 June I paid Dmitry Dmitriyevich a short visit. He told me that he had recently written Five Satires to Words by Sasha Chorny [Op. 109], and he hoped to acquaint me with this new opus. But the following day – 29 June – Shostakovich called me early in the morning and asked me to come to see him urgently. The moment I saw him I was struck by the lines of suffering on his face, and by his whole air of distress. He hurried me straight into the little room where he had slept, crumpled down on to the bed and began to weep with great, aching sobs. I was extremely alarmed, imagining that some dreadful harm had befallen either him or someone in his family. In answer to my questioning, he managed through tears to jerk out indistinctly: ‘They’ve been pursuing me for years, hunting me down.’ Never before had I seen Shostakovich in such a state of hysterical collapse. I gave him a glass of cold water; he drank it down, his teeth chattering, then gradually calmed himself. However, it took about an hour for him to recover enough composure to tell me what had recently been happening in Moscow.
It had been decided on the initiative of Nikita Khrushchov to appoint Shostakovich President of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, but in order for him to take up the post he would have to become a member of the Party. The task of persuading him to take this step had been entrusted to Pospelov, a member of the Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Federation. These are the exact words which Shostakovich said to me that June morning in 1960, at the height of the ‘thaw’: ‘Pospelov tried everything he knew to persuade me to join the Party, in which, he said, these days one breathes freely and easily under Nikita Sergeyevich. Pospelov praised Khrushchov to the skies, talking about his youth – yes, youth was the word he used – telling me all about his wonderful plans, and about how it really was time I joined the ranks of a Party headed now not by Stalin but by Nikita Sergeyevich.
I had almost lost the power of speech, but somehow managed to stammer out my unworthiness to accept such an honour. Clutching at straws, I said that I had never succeeded in properly grasping Marxism, and surely I ought to wait until I had. Next I pleaded my religious beliefs, and after that tried to argue that there was no overriding reason why a Composers’ Union President had to be a Party member, citing Konstantin Fedin and Leonid Sobolev, who were non-Party members high up in the Writers’ Union. But Pospelov would not hear of any of my objections, and mentioned several times Khruschchov’s particular concern for the development of music, which he felt I had an obligation to support. This conversation completely exhausted me. Later, I had another meeting with Pospelov, when he renewed his efforts and once again simply backed me into a corner. In the end I lost my nerve, and just gave in.’
This account of what had transpired kept being interrupted by my agitated questioning, and I reminded Shostakovich of the many times he had said to me that he would never join a Party that endorsed violence. After a long pause he went on: ‘The Composers’ Union soon got to know the outcome of my discussions with Pospelov, and someone or other cobbled together a statement which I was supposed to parrot at a meeting. But look, I absolutely decided I wasn’t going to go to any meeting. I came up here to Leningrad on the quiet to stay with my sister and hide from my tormentors, still hoping that they would think better of it, they might feel some sympathy for me and leave me in peace. And I thought if that didn’t happen, I could lock myself in up here and just sit it out. But then yesterday evening they sent telegrams to me demanding my return. But I’m not going, you see, they’ll only get me to Moscow if they tie me up and drag me there, you understand, tie me up.’
Saying these last words as if he were swearing an oath, Shostakovich suddenly became absolutely calm, as though by coming to this decision he had loosened the cord from around his neck. He had taken the first step: by not turning up at the session planned with so much pomp and ceremony, he would effectively neutralize it. Overjoyed at this resolve, I said goodbye and after promising to visit the recluse again in a few days’ time, I went back out to the dacha my mother had rented in Zelenogorsk. However, on 1 July, without waiting for my return visit, he suddenly arrived on the doorstep of the dacha late in the evening, clutching a bottle of vodka. It was raining. After a sleepless night with its attendant emotional upsets, he looked completely exhausted. Dmitry Dmitriyevich had hardly crossed the threshold of our little cottage when he said: ‘Please forgive me for coming so late. But I simply had to see you and share my troubles with you.’ Little did I realize then that in a few weeks’ time he would be pouring out the troubles gnawing at his heart and unburdening his soul in the Eighth Quartet.
Once the vodka had begun its job of thawing him out, Shostakovich began to talk, not about the ill-fated meeting, but about the power of fate. He quoted a line from Pushkin’s The Gypsies: ‘There’s no escaping from one’s destiny.’ Listening to him, I began to wonder unhappily if he were not even now preparing to submit to his fate, having seen that resistance was vain and he would have eventually to yield. Sadly, this proved to be the case: the meeting, a tragic farce, was simply rearranged for a later date and Shostakovich, his face on fire with shame, read out the prepared statement announcing that he had been accepted into the Party. Thinking back to this episode, I cannot help remembering the title of a marvellous choral work by Shostakovich: Song of Victory [from the dramatic spectacle Victorious Spring, Op. 72]. It could stand as an epigraph to the story of how he was forced to join the Communist Party.
The utter fearlessness Shostakovich exhibited in his creative and artistic life coexisted with the fear Stalin’s terror had bred in him. Small wonder that, caught in the toils of years of spiritual enslavement, writing the autobiographical Eighth Quartet he gave such dramatic and heart-rending voice to the melody of the song ‘Tormented by Grievous Bondage’.