Shostakovich String Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 68

performed by the Emerson String Quartet

Shostakovich was a prolific composer, as we have discussed, but it was rather late in his life that he got around to string quartets. He was in his thirties before he completed his first, in 1938, and it was another six years before today’s quartet, the second, showed up, and it seemed like they came along more quickly after that.

Shostakovich had already written his eighth symphony by the time his second quartet came around, so don’t assume that these are glimpses into the young composer’s earliest works (like the first few Beethoven quartets, or Mozart’s earliest efforts in the form). And what we hear here sounds to me like a definite maturation over the first. Number one still has some interesting characteristics of Shostakovich’s work, but this second seems to be much more mature, a more fully-developed, organized, well-executed piece.

Wiki says of its composition that it “was composed in 1944 in just nineteen days in Ivanovo, 300 kilometres north-east of Moscow. It was premiered by the Beethoven Quartet and is dedicated to the composer Vissarion Shebalin.” That’s kind of cool. I listened to some Shebalin recently but know very little about him.

So again, at this point in history, Shostakovich had completed half of his symphonic output, but only his second string quartet. That being said, this is one of his longest, apparently coming at only a minute shorter than the fifteenth (says Wikipedia, although this is obviously dependent on the recording!). And if you know the seventh and eighth quartets, you know that they’re wartime works, powerful, moving, crushing, spirited, at times violent. But then here we have this kind of enigmatic second quartet… perhaps its having been written on a retreat way outside Moscow lends a lighter, or at least more ambiguous atmosphere to the work.

Something we’ll see in the coming week is a thing I love about Shostakovich’s music, how he organizes his movements. He has a fantastically vivid way of sticking to traditional styles, forms, labels (scherzo, valse, passacaglia, sonata-allegro forms) but then does wildly expressive, dramatic, nontraditional things with them. Today’s quartet isn’t wildly untraditional in all those ways, but we have a very interesting four-movement form:

  1. Overture: Moderato con moto
  2. Recitative and Romance: Adagio
  3. Valse: Allegro
  4. Theme with Variations: Adagio

How cool is that?! The whole thing sounds (on paper) like an opera or some kind of stage play. An overture, recitative/romance, a waltz, and then a theme with variations. Let’s talk about that.

The ‘overture’, unsurprisingly is in sonata form. It opens brightly and confidently in A major, with mild tinges of folk characteristics, but the piece quickly seems to deepen out into a pretty bold complexity, as if the four players all got off on the same foot but quickly started walking in different directions. The harmonies get interesting pretty quickly, and a violin here and there echoes the opening statement, flashes of dissonance or uncertainty. It’s easy to pick up on the repeat of the exposition with that clear-cut opening gesture back in bright A major. That tension builds quickly as the confident cheerfulness again decays away into a complex texture of rhythm and dissonance. The development is at times folksy, with a solo fiddle playing over plucked strings, in a remote, distant sounding key, followed by the cello. There’s constant tension, but a lightness, and the overall feel is an unsettled ambiguity. We can hear our opening figure return toward the end, but there isn’t a clear answer tot he tension and ambiguity of the movement. For me, I’m left feeling not disappointed but intrigued by the enigma, and then there’s the recitative.

The second movement has long passages written without bar lines as the violin plays a long, expansive line of lyricism over seventh chords in the rest of the ensemble. Even this, what could be seen as a kind of solo cadenza part in a quartet scenario, still at times feels a little bit folksy. It’s very expressive, and somehow foreign, exotic sounding. There are long pauses, and the whole thing is very broad, but also strained sounding, as if something dramatic is just on the verge of happening. There’s a very clear four-part harmony situation. The lowest three voices sing in unison for almost the whole movement, while first violin dances about them. The Romance, fittingly, is a repose, a peaceful, beautiful passage of expressive, delicate music, where the cello gets to sing for a while. It is operatic, but also lonesome, like it’s a drama that’s unfolding on some bare stage out in the wilderness, like the music to a play without words, a silent black and white film. The Romance is really beautiful, but it also shows a bit of the breakdown from the first movement, where things start to diverge, or unravel, and our breath of fresh air brings us back to the Recitative to close out the movement.

These waltzes and scherzos and dance movements of Shostakovich. He’s able to whip up such a dichotomy of images, isn’t he? Something that’s wistful and lyrical and melodic like a waltz from Tchaikovsky, except it’s imbued with darkness and sarcasm and irony. And mutes. All four strings are muted for the duration of this five-and-a-half minutes of lyrical lunacy. It’s actually not that over-the-top, beginning pretty quaintly at first, but grows to a more frenzied, relentless valse. Don’t break an ankle; this one’s a bit treacherous, but it’s still fitting, a small-scale version of what might appear in one of his symphonies, even though this quartet isn’t really all that small. The valse ends much the way it began.

To end our four-movement quartet, we have, not a rondo, not another sonata form, but a theme-and-variations. The movement begins with a unison passage in the three low voices, a full-bodied tenor-ish sounding two bars that carve out a dramatic line, which gives way to an expressive response from first violin. This happens again, before cello takes a solo line and the disparate elements come together, all of this very Russian-sounding. I can’t help but think of Tchaikovsky here. Anyway, the viola takes over with a solo passage and our variations get underway.

There are some really great passages in this writing. It’s very Russian, and there are a few real standout moments of this longest movement of the quartet, which makes up almost a third of the entire length of the piece, and I must say that I feel the variations at times lose a bit of the energy from the rest of the work.

There is a sudden passage (at rehearsal mark #103 AND measure 103, only one bar away) that seems to quote the composer’s fifth symphony unmistakably, unless I was way off when I was listening and made these notes, and then at rehearsal mark 116 (marked allegro non troppo) is a sudden, refreshingly A major passage, but the work ultimately ends with a restatement of the theme from the very beginning, an even more filled-out, towering, heavy, expressive ending in A minor, the parallel minor of the opening key.

Could you make claims about the work being a wartime piece, or a product of that experience? Sure. Could you reason that it’s a diet or anti-wartime piece, in the thick of it but removed from the situation at the moment, 180 miles outside of Moscow in an artists’ retreat, taking a breather, experimenting with a different kind of structure? Sure. Do we really know? No.

This work is apparently one of the composer’s least-performed quartets, and it’s clearly not because it’s a throwaway piece. It’s one of his biggest quartets, but I must confess, I’m writing this in almost complete ignorance of his later quartets, the ones that get all the attention, so I can’t really justifiably compare it to what comes later. I can only assume (and based on what I’ve heard) that if he went on to write more than a dozen more, there must be some really good stuff in there, and we’ll get to it eventually, but not now.

Stay tuned later in the week for two of his later works, one of which only a few opus numbers away from this one (originally), but very different in tone. See you then.

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