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Shostakovich: Breaking Down Silence Saint Paul Sunday Shostakovich home Feature

Paul Epstein's Notes on Shostakovich's
String Quartets Nos. 2, 4, and 13

From the Emerson String Quartet recording, The Shostakovich String Quartets
© Paul Epstein, excerpted with permission.


String Quartet No. 2, Op. 68 (1944)


And when the war broke out, its real horrors, its real dangers, its menace of real death were a blessing compared with the inhuman reign of the lie, and they brought relief because they broke the spell of the dead letter. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1958), epilogue

Even before the war, in Leningrad there probably wasn't a single family who hadn't lost someone, a father, a brother, or if not a relative, then a close friend. Everyone had someone to cry over, but you had to cry silently, under a blanket, so no one would see. Everyone feared everyone else, and the sorrow oppressed and suffocated us. And then the war came and the sorrow became a common one. We could talk about it, we could cry openly, cry for our lost ones. People stopped fearing tears. In other countries war probably interferes with the arts. But in Russia - for tragic reasons - there was a flowering of the arts. Shostakovich in Testimony

In 1941, the Shostakoviches were evacuated from their home in Leningrad, then under terrible siege, to Kuibyshev, in the country. After a year, in the autumn of 1942, they decided to move to Moscow - there were too many bad memories in Leningrad, and it would be more convenient professionally. Both during and after the war they continued to travel a great deal, and usually spent summers away from the city. The Second Quartet was written at Ivanovo, during the second of three productive summers (1943-45) Shostakovich spent there in a "House of Rest and Creativity" - government sponsored rustic retreats for writers and composers.

I worked in a little log cabin, Shostakovich in a poultry barn. And how we worked! Were we influenced by nature and our surroundings? Or was it the feeling of victory around the corner? Or simply that we were getting properly fed? The war drew us together in an atmosphere of unity. Aram Khachaturian, quoted in Sofiya M. Khentova, "Shostakovich and Khachaturian", Muzikalnaya Zhisn (1988)

I discovered him to be a very lively man who was always in motion.I wondered when he did the actual composing. The Quartet [No.2] was written in under four weeks before my very eyes. But nobody saw him at the desk or at the piano. I began to observe him closely. He would play football and fool around with friends; then he would suddenly disappear. After forty minutes or so he would turn up again. 'How are you doing? Let me kick the ball.' Then we would have dinner and drink some wine and take a walk, and he would be the life and soul of the party. Every now and then he would disappear for a while and then join us again. Towards the end of my stay he disappeared altogether. We didn't see him for a week. Then he turned up, unshaven and looking exhausted. 'Let's go to a cottage with a piano in it.' He played us the Second Quartet. It had that very day's date on it [20 September]. Mikhail Meyerovich, a composer who spent time with Shostakovich at Ivanovo in the summer of 1944

I worry about the lightning speed with which I compose. Undoubtedly this is bad. One shouldn't compose as quickly as I do. It is exhausting, rather unpleasant, and at the end of the day you lack any confidence in the result. But I can't rid myself of the bad habit. Shostakovich in a letter (6 September 1944) to the composer Vissarion Shebalin, director of the Moscow conservatory, friend and dedicatee of the Second Quartet

The evidence, however, shows that he worked out his compositions in his head in remarkable detail and then simply notated the finished product.

My father always said, "I think long; I write fast." Maxim Shostakovich


On the Second Quartet:

The large form was congenial to Shostakovich, and his facility allowed him to create immense canvases quickly. The proportions of the Second Quartet reflect the epic mood of those years. The work presents an interesting confluence of symphonic and the dramatic, the old and the modern; and in its heroic aspirations, "Russian" sound, and theatrical movement titles, one can sense a subtle echo of Tchaikovsky.

The first movement, Overture, starts like a powerful, sonata-like structure. But when the main material returns in the recapitulation it is in a more minor realm than before, and in attenuated form; we don't hear the original, major-key version until the very last bars. This lack of resolution creates a theatrical suspense, true to the movement title - a "promise of things to come." Surrounding the Romance is a lengthy, almost cantorial Recitative punctuated by the simplest of chords and which concludes with the cadential formula that ends almost every Baroque and Classical recitative. Is this ironic or devastatingly sincere? The sinister third-movement waltz, Shostakovich admitted to the writer Daniil Zhitomirsky,

"is a "valse macabre." And if it were compared to the classics, it should be compared to the Waltz from the Third Suite by Tchaikovsky."

Introduced by a brief, adagio pre-echo, the moodily "Russian" theme of the last movement variations builds toward a screaming climax, collapses down to a quiet, playful variation, and lands at last on an emphatic and final restatement of the introduction.


String Quartet No. 4, Op. 83 (1949)

Jewish Voices

It is clear from his music and his actions that Shostakovich was deeply concerned with the "Jewish question." He was a vociferous opponent of anti-Semitism, often, as we have seen, at his own peril. There were many Jews within his closest circle. One might even say that, in his own precarious situation, he identified with the Jews' ambivalent and insecure social state, and often in his work adopted a kind of crypto-Jewish musical "persona".

[It's] multifaceted and can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It's almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish music is close to my ideas of what music should be. There also should be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music. Shostakovich in Testimony

At times the Jewish influence is right on the surface, as in the Eighth Quartet or the Tenth Symphony. But it can also be felt in a more pervasive, if less obvious, way. The Thirteenth Symphony, for instance, is a setting of Yevtushenko's poem that was provoked by the 1941 massacre of Jews at Babi Yar (and contains the line "Now I seem to be a Jew"), but it bears no trace of a Yiddish accent. Rather, it is in the concept of "levels," of "despair in dance music" as articulated in the much quoted passage above, that we find Shostakovich adopting what has been described as a secret Jewish identity. It is a subtle stance, not immediately noticeable: ironic and self-deprecating, yet a little stern; part jester, part humble servant, part seer. It breathes an air of bleak, existential humor reminiscent of Beckett, or of Lear's Fool trapped in a gray, totalitarian world.

Eugene Drucker: If you explore the different levels on which his music functions, you find a very sophisticated use of attitude and stance, which I think is a modern phenomenon.

The dynamic tension between levels of meaning generates a kind of inner expressive pressure and creates the heightened emotional significance and sense of passionate contemplation that are the music's hallmarks. This is central to appreciating the music's multi-layered and often subversive subtext.


On the Fourth Quartet:

Both these modes of Jewish meaning are at work in the Fourth Quartet. Though not as explicitly Jewish as the Piano Trio or the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, it is colored by folk-like, vaguely Middle Eastern melody, rhythm and texture. Wailing tunes and penetrating drones begin the extraordinary first movement, not built around the Western classical dialectics of conflict and resolution, but proceeding in a more "Eastern", unbroken, monothematic, rising-and-falling, shape. The second movement, a "Romanza", unfolds in like fashion, beginning in wistful sadness, spiralling upward in one long, unbroken violin melody to an anguished climax, then winding back down to quiet tragedy.

The third movement, a (literally) muted scherzo shot through with menace as well as humor, is joined to the fourth and last by a viola incantation. This finale weaves Klezmer-ish tunes, drones, and dance rhythms into a gradually rising and thickening swirl of events. Its climax, like those of the previous movements, winds slowly back to a quiet that is deepened by the struggle preceding it. But this time it winds all the way down, to a stasis that, for Shostakovich, could only be death itself.


String Quartet No. 13, Op. 138 (1970)

The Edge

All is quiet.There are only two of us in this cell:
Myself and my mind.

Guillaume Apollinaire, "At the Santé Jail" (from Symphony no. 14)

Shostakovich's last three quartets were written in the final four years of his life. Trapped within a weak and ailing body, his mind turned increasingly inward, toward the core of his thoughts and beliefs, creating the enormous expressive strength that emanates from these works. There is an extraordinary compression of language, a radical economy, in which intensity and complexity are communicated through deceptively simple means. By this time, Shostakovich no longer bothered with masks or mirrors. This music seems beyond even technique or theory - masks, of course, in themselves. Its subjective unfolding makes formal analysis difficult - or unnecessary. (The composer was loath to describe his works in words and had a healthy mistrust of musicology and its practitioners.) Nor can the music be wholly explained by the sounding surface, which seems almost too rough or rudimentary to convey its depth. It is extreme, at the edge of expression, on the brink of danger. Conventional musical discourse seems under attack.

Even the keys of these quartets are deliberately extreme, not normally associated with string writing: No.13 is in B flat minor (five flats), No.14 in F sharp major (six sharps). Shostakovich had said, somewhat facetiously, that he planned to write 24 quartets, in all the major and minor keys: by the time he got to the later ones, many of the more conventional, easier-to-play-in keys had been used up. He could, however, have written the immensely tragic Fifteenth in the still unused D minor (one flat) - a classically "tragic" key, both for Shostakovich and throughout music history - but he chose instead the far stranger E flat minor (six flats), only a half-step away but lying "against" the instruments, deliberately out of sync with their natural resonance and playing technique.

In the last quartets, conventional techniques no longer suffice to convey the music's message: in the Thirteenth Quartet there is much knocking, scraping and plucking. Thick, clotted chords undermine harmonic integrity. Simple sounds, no longer moored by functional harmony, take on spooky, solitary meanings, as in the devastating last sound in No.13 - a note that swells to bursting under the cumulative dramatic pressure; or in the fractured, hocketing passage in the last movement of No.14; or in that quartet's first movement, right before the recapitulation, when everything stops for a chilling octave at the extremes of the quartet range.


On the Thirteenth Quartet:

Black horses
And dark souls
Wander in the depths
Of the guitar

Federico Garcia Lorca, "Malagueña" (from Symphony no. 14)

The extreme and hallucinatory quality of the last three quartets reflects, in part, the world of pain and drugs in which they were written. Long, arduous therapies for a polio-like syndrome, heart disease, and finally cancer kept Shostakovich increasingly in hospitals. The Thirteenth Quartet was finished in a neurological institute in August, 1970. Sonically and formally, it is one of his most extraordinary quartets.

It is dedicated to Vadim Borisovsky, who had recently retired as violist of the Beethoven Quartet, and features that often marginalized instrument in a leading role. The quartet begins and ends with viola solos: the first, a weirdly beautiful theme that happens to be a twelve-tone row; and the last, an amazing climb up to heights not often reached by the third member of the quartet. This kind of mirror symmetry generally describes the arc of the Thirteenth's form. In reality, the last three quartets have little use for sonata-form techniques; their arguments are less dialectical and more in the nature of a gradual unfolding, the transmission of a state of mind. In the Thirteenth, there is an overall ABA shape which creates the sense of a journey begun and ended. At the very center of the form is a remarkable, surrealistic jazz section. In it, the players are called upon to become percussionists, tapping their bows on the bodies of the instruments.

The Thirteenth is notable for its spiky dissonance and atonality, and like the Twelfth it explores 12-tone territory, but in a much more compressed form. (It is Webern to the Twelfth's Berg.) Shostakovich was one of many composers of his generation - including Stravinsky, Copland and Britten - who started their careers writing in an extended tonal idiom, but during the 1960's and 70's began to explore the more atonal and serial languages then being used by their younger colleagues.