Shostakovich String Quartet no. 1 in C, Op. 49

performed (live) by the Emerson String Quartet, from their box set of the quartets

“I visualized childhood scenes, somewhat naïve and bright moods associated with spring.”

Dmitri Shostakovich
from Epstein, Paul. Emerson String Quartet: “Shostakovich: The String Quartets”

I wrote a bit of a roundabout introduction last week to Bartok’s first string quartet by putting it in the context of classical music history as the first of a series of landmark quartets of the 20th century. Bartok wrote six. Shostakovich’s string quartet cycle is another milestone.

Except he wrote fifteen of them.

In discussing to whom the symphony-writing baton was passed upon Mahler’s death, I’d say a pretty common suggestion is Shostakovich, and for as modern and nontraditional as some of his music might sound, he worked in such classical forms. Fifteen symphonies, the same number of quartets, sonatas for violin and viola, two concertos each for piano, violin, and cello… these are all forms that may bring Beethoven to mind, and forms that, aside from an early piano quartet, Mahler seemed uninterested in. Shostakovich’s output is large, varied, and beyond worthy of attention, so I’m glad that after having touched on (only) a few of his symphonies, we’re setting sail with his chamber music.

Unlike a Bartok or Mozart early string quartet, Shostakovich’s first isn’t an early work. It was written in 1938, a year after the composer’s fifth symphony, undeniably one of the greatest symphonies ever written, so it wasn’t like he was getting his sea legs or anything.

We do, however, hear a different sound in this work. While still a four-movement work, it comes in total right at 14 minutes (including the surprising audience applause at the end). It lacks both the sprawling largeness of the fourth and fifth symphonies, as well as the overwhelmingly heavy, powerful, at times violent expression. Instead we have a youthful piece. You could be excused for thinking that this was from a young, more carefree time in the composer’s career, but even that thought is tempered by some of the minor-key moments that seem to suggest more painful memories. Wikipedia says of the work:

…the composer seemed to have discovered a new kind of distinctly Russian neoclassicism. The tone is chiefly optimistic, although the minor-keyed inner movements provide a contrast.

None of the movements exceeds four minutes in length, so the overall feel, from both the content and the scope, is lighter, like a quick flip through an old photo album, sighs of happy memories and flashes, unspoken, of maybe not so happy times.

Also, we’re in C major, which seems… pretty plain and straightforward. The opening of the first movement is polite and friendly, with two relatively bright, cheery themes. There are glimpses, just the slightest of flashes here and there, though, that it might get melancholy really quickly. The second subject is marked by repeated short notes and a sweeping, kind of catchy glissando in the cello while the first violin sings above them. It’s quaint, rustic, folksy even. There are distant moments in the development section of the little sonata-form movement, and a little coda to go with it.

As Wikipedia mentioned above, the inner movements provide some contrast to the shaded cheer of the first movement. The viola begins with a really captivating little folk-like melody that begins to get passed around the ensemble, almost like a canon, but it’s a theme-and-variations movement. If you hadn’t already solidly gotten the impression that Shostakovich is pretty much a musical genius, the way he handles so well the expression and atmosphere and content of his first string quartet shows that he’s not testing the waters here. This is a solid work, traditional, suited to the quartet, but still individual. I mean…. sonata-form and theme-and-variations? A really great one at that.

This movement is in Am, so it’s darker and more pained, except for a few more playful variations toward the end, and I get the impression there’s a ton of music packed into this (barely) longest of the four movements. When the viola returns with its opening melody accompanied by pizzicato in the background, that folksy, almost gypsy feel is that much stronger, a rich, moving, spirited yet not overstated expression. The piece ends quietly with a plucked Am chord.

The third movement continues our very short journey away from cheer and comfort, a scherzo in the very distant key of C#m (which might seem closely related to C major, except they don’t actually have too much in common. It’s the relative minor of E major, which has four sharps; C major has none.) It’s by far the shortest of the four movements and the most directly energetic so far, a fast-paced, slightly nervous thing, but the trio is one of the sweetest, most delicate moments of the whole work, truly a gem, in F# major, and gives us a bit of respite from the tension created in these two movements. The scherzo makes its way back to round out the short movement before the finale.

The finale takes the bright cheerfulness of the opening movement in C as well as some of the excitement from the scherzo to give us a sunny finish. It’s quick and full of texture and color, all four members of the quartet taking part in the dialogue, with a bit more of the crunch and force we’re used to hearing from Shostakovich. There are cute glissandos here and there and it’s folksy and buoyant, but not without a bit of drama and darkness, as one would hope for from a finale to just about any work. It’s a solid end, a breathtaking, sweeping, commanding finish with a rich, full string quartet sound that brings the first quartet of Shostakovich’s cycle to a close.

We only discussed the first of Bartok, since he wrote only six. But Shostakovich wrote 15, and while this first one I think is really a little piece of genius, there’s much more to get to in the later works, so these earliest quartets might not get as much attention. Tomorrow, we’ll take a swing at number two, and then it’s onto violin stuff in the coming week. Need I say this is about as cheerful and bright as the pieces from Shostakovich this week will be? Buckle up and stay tuned.


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