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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets Nos. 1, 8 and 9
American Record Guide
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110
String Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 49
String Quartet No. 9 in E Flat Major, Op. 117
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the son of an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As a pianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.
Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol, was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Golden Age was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism. The first of these, To October, was written in response to a commission from the state authorities and was intended to mark the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. The Third Symphony, completed in 1929, marked another celebration of the regime and was subtitled The First of May.
In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, first performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title Katerina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to which Shostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time.
In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet. In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev, its broadcast performance in the devastated city to which it is dedicated and subsequent performances in allied countries had, as the authorities had intended, a strong effect on moral in Leningrad and in Russia, and aroused emotions of patriotic sympathy abroad.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now with Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social and practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of his compositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961.
In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title Katerina Ismailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.
The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity and lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and Küchelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9th August.
The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg had been fired on by troops, Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism.
The testimony of others and a recent scholarly survey of the life and work of Shostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough. Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice of artistic integrity.
Shostakovich wrote his Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Opus 110, in July 1960 during a visit to Dresden, devastated by British and American bombers at the request of Russia. Appalled by what he saw, he dedicated the work to the memory of victims of fascism and war, but created in it music that was largely autobiographical, giving the dedication an ironical twist not recognised by the Soviet authorities, who had sent him to East Germany to provide music for the film pyat'dney - pyatnochey (Five Days-Five Nights). In a letter to his friend Isaak Glikman he revealed the nature of the work, which makes considerable use of a figure derived from his initials, DSCH, which in German notation becomes D - Es (E flat) - C - H (B natural), as well as the revolutionary song Tormented by grievous bondage and themes from his own compositions, from the First Symphony, the First Cello Concerto, the Piano Trio and the opera A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, as well as from the Tenth Symphony. Other musical references include the funeral march from Wagner's Götterdämmerung and the second theme from the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. He confesses that the work brought tears to his eyes as he wrote it, and his friend Lev Lebedinsky recalls that Shostakovich suggested that the quartet was his own epitaph, preceding his planned suicide, forced on him by the political pressures to which he was now subjected. It was played at the composer's funeral in 1975.
The first movement of the quartet opens with a fugal treatment of the Shostakovich cryptogram, D - E flat - C - B natural, announced by the cello, followed by the other instruments in ascending order. This is followed by a reference to the composer's First Symphony and two further themes, the second derived from the Fifth Symphony. The second movement, in G sharp minor, opens with a violent theme derived from a secondary theme in the first movement and played by the first violin on the G string. The Shostakovich motif re-appears and a viola treatment of the theme, accompanied by fierce cello chords and followed by the return of the first violin in the same material, leads to a second theme, the Jewish melody from the Piano Trio. These elements are developed in a movement of abridged sonata-form. The third movement Allegretto starts with the composer's musical signature, a sinister waltz, entrusted initially to the first violin. There is a second waltz theme and then an intermittent change into duple rhythm, before a reference to the First Cello Concerto and a theme played in the higher register of the cello. The first violin, in its lowest register, leads to the fourth movement, with the Cello Concerto theme, leading to the song Tormented by grievous bondage, played by the first violin and followed by a third theme, from the opera A Lady Macbeth in the higher range of the cello. The Cello Concerto theme is heard again and the first violin, repeating the Shostakovich monogram, leads to the final fugal movement.
Shostakovich wrote the Quartet No. 1 in C major, Opus 49, in July 1938, a period following the shock of the condemnation of his opera and his alleged answer to justified criticism in the politically acceptable Fifth Symphony. The work is deceptively simple in appearance, with a first movement in tripartite sonata-form, its two subjects, the second with its cello glissando accompaniment, very briefly developed, before an abridged recapitulation. The viola starts the second movement with a theme that is varied by the first violin, then in E major triplets before a varied recapitulation in the original key of A minor. The muted third movement scherzo in C sharp minor starts with a repeated viola G sharp, accompanying the second and then the first violin. There is an F sharp major trio section, before the viola ostinato returns. The quartet ends with a lively and rhythmically varied finale, its second subject offered by the cello, with viola accompaniment.
Shostakovich wrote his Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Opus 117, between 2nd and 28th May 1964 and dedicated it to his third wife, Irina, daughter of a dissident who had died in the Stalinist purges and some thirty years his junior. The marriage brought a measure of order to the composer's household, after his unsatisfactory second marriage, contracted after the death of his first wife, had ended in divorce. Shostakovich destroyed the first version of the quartet, written in 1961. The new quartet was completely different. It is in five linked movements and opens with a movement marked Moderato con moto in which the first violin announces a theme over a sustained note from viola and cello and an ostinato figure in the second violin. There is a shift of key to B minor, as the cello plays the second subject, accompanied by the plucked and syncopated notes of the other instruments. A sustained viola note links the first to the second movement, an F sharp minor Adagio, with a viola melody derived from the oscillating accompanying second violin figure of the first movement. The first violin leads into the third movement Allegretto, its opening theme again derived from the same figure, played off the string in a scherzo-type movement. The second violin provides a link to the fourth movement with a sustained E flat, leading to a muted thematically related E flat Adagio, interrupted by sudden plucked chords from the second violin and then from the viola. The movement provides motivic material for the fifth movement, with its asymmetries of rhythm and tensions, its cello 'cadenza', glissandi, violent outbursts and oblique references to the DSCH cryptogram.
The present members of the Éder Quartet are the violinists György Selmeczi and Péter Szüts, Sándor Papp, viola, and György Éder, cello. The quartet was formed in 1973 by students of the Liszt Academy in Budapest and won first prize in the 1976 Evian International String Quartet Competition, where the jury included members of the Amadeus Quartet, taking second prize in the ARD International String Quartet Competition in Munich in 1977, when no first prize was awarded. Since their success in Munich, they have performed in almost every European country, captivating audiences and critics alike at the international festivals of Bordeaux, West Berlin, Evian, Istanbul and Bath. The quartet has also toured extensively in the United States of America, Australia and New Zealand and is recording all the Mozart and Shostakovich string quartets for Naxos.
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SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets Nos. 1, 8 and 9