performed by the Emerson String Quartet, or below by the Borodin Quartet
Although this is only the third of the composer’s fifteen completed string quartets, it’s not an early work by any means. In fact, it comes after the composer’s ninth symphony, op. 70, which was completed and performed in 1945, and we might be able to hear some similarities between the two.
The work was dedicated to and premiered by the Beethoven quartet, in December of 1946. It’s set in five movements, with a playing time of just over half an hour. The movements are titled thusly:
- Moderato con moto
- Allegro non troppo
However, as Wikipedia says:
For the premiere, most likely so that he would not be accused of “formalism” or “elitism,” Shostakovich allegedly renamed the movements in the manner of a war story:
- Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm
- Rumblings of unrest and anticipation
- Forces of war unleashed
- In memory of the dead
- The eternal question: Why? And for what?
I suppose upon publication, or at some later point, the movements were given their musical, Italian titles.
The first movement, marked allegretto, opens quite cheerily, actually. You may recall from the above-linked article about the ninth symphony that Shostakovich ultimately decided to avoid the undertaking of a grand, epic, choral ninth, and the result is what at first appears to be a light, almost neoclassical style work, in strong contrast with the symphonies before and after it. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely devoid of heft, and the same is true of this quartet, as we can see from the more politically appealing titles, but they’re perhaps only to be taken at most as a reference, perhaps even a red herring.
But I digress.
The opening movement begins cheerfully enough, but if you know Shostakovich’s tone, you might identify a bit of the uneasiness that plagues his unconvincing optimism. It’s in sonata form, with prominence given mostly to the first theme, even in the development, which contains a surprisingly serious-sounding double fugue. Both themes of this movement are introduced by first violin. It all gives us pause to admire the composer’s skill, but the almost Haydnesque cheerfulness doesn’t stick with us through to the end.
From the first beat of the second movement, though, things aren’t as cheerful, in the key of E minor. If we’re to follow those titles from the premiere, we see that something is amiss. In fact, it’s interesting to go back and look at them only after having heard the movement associated with it. For example, the cheerfulness of the first movement isn’t referred to as any kind of innocence or optimism, but “blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm.” Fittingly, this second movement, with only echoes of the bounce and tone of the first movement, mentions “rumblings of unrest.” It’s not fire-and-brimstone by any stretch of the imagination, no, but darker for sure.
The third movement is the shortest of the work, the central scherzo, with ‘forces of war unleashed.’ If nothing up to this point sounded familiar, this should strike a chord, as it quite some similarity to some of the more intense movements from the composer’s symphonies around the time of this work. In its fullness and drive, it sounds like more than a quartet. We don’t get much in the way of repose, either, as there’s no quaint trio to give us a breather.
Even after that, the first strokes of the fourth movement are heavy, oppressive, answered by a softer, mournful phrase. This is the ‘in memory of the dead’ from the premiere’s titles, but again, I don’t put much stock in those being the composer’s original intentions. Listen for that cello line. There’s nothing here but bleak mourning, sorrow, and in a way that only Shostakovich writes. The movement is apparently a passacaglia. It continues to hover around the same despairing gestures, and although in C# minor, the movement ends on a C natural from cello which leads over into the finale,
This finale, the ‘eternal question’, begins rather eerily, but feels as if it tries to return to some of the optimism of the opening, but can’t. It’d be nice if I could talk about its underlying structure or harmonic progression, etc., but I can’t. You may hear echoes of that ebullience, in a distorted, now troubled mood, as if, literally, one can never go back to the way things were.
Interestingly, it’s mentioned a few places online that the Borodin Quartet insisted on having those programmatic subtitles printed on their programs whenever they performed this piece. Personally, I’m inclined to believe it’s not that straightforward, or the composer wouldn’t have added them in what seems to me like an afterthought, but perhaps they are indeed indicative of what the composer had in mind, but directed to a different audience, as with the fifth symphony. Who knows?
Also, if I may pull out my soap box for a moment, I’ll mention that Rudolf Barshai has arranged this quartet (and others) for chamber orchestra. Barshai is an outstanding musician, yes, and there is/was perhaps no one better suited to this task than him, but I still don’t feel it to be necessary. Go listen to this quartet again and tell me truthfully if it lacks anything. It doesn’t. The optimistic first movement, the harrowing scherzo, bleak passacaglia, all of it, it’s all perfectly balanced.
If Shostakovich had been a composer who wrote string quartets but no symphonies, I could see the draw to making chamber symphonies from these works, but for me, there’s no interest. It’s like the four-door Porsche… If I want a four-door luxury sedan, I have many options, but a Porsche, for the vast majority of people, is a two-door hi-performance sports car. Or maybe a Mini Cooper, that awful looking Clubman. It is what it is and it doesn’t need to be something it isn’t. Anyway, Barshai did a number of them and this is one; you may be interested, but for me, this is a string quartet and should stay so.
In fact, I seem to recall the composer being especially fond of this work. I may not have addressed it in much depth, but Shostakovich’s work is of such weight, either from the emotional content it covers, or its musical integrity. To think there are still a dozen more quartets from his pen to come to appreciate, and we’re already into his mature career, corresponding with his ninth and tenth symphonies. All in good time.
That’s the last of Shostakovich we’ll see for some time, at least for the rest of this year, but there’s plenty more on the way, so do stay tuned, and thank you for reading.