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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets Nos. 3 and 5
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
String Quartet No.3 in F Major, Op. 73
String Quartet No.5 in B Flat Major, Op. 92
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 nineteenth century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, and performed In Lemngrad 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 of Leningrad to which it is dedicated and subsequent performances in allied countries had, as the authorities had intended, a strong effect on morale 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, all 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 Yev1ushenko, 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 completed his Third Quartet at the dacha he rented in the village of Komarovo outside Leningrad in early August 1946. It was dedicated to the members of the Beethoven Quartet, who gave the first performance in Moscow on 16th December of the same year. It was withdrawn shortly afterwards, but remained in private circulation during the difficult years that followed. The first movement, in tripartite sonata form, offers a characteristic first subject, introduced by the first violin, and leading to a pianissimo second subject. The material is developed in a double fugue, before the final recapitulation and the re-appearance of the first subject in the coda. The E minor second movement is based on three themes. The first of these is presented by the first violin against an ostinato viola pattern and the second by the viola, with cello ostinato. The third theme is played staccato and pianissimo, the first returning to frame the contrasting episodes. A similar rondo form is used in the third movement, in the key of G sharp minor. Here two of the themes are based on an irregular rhythmic pattern, while the third is a curious march, the viola accompanied by plucked strings, the violins in syncopation. The C sharp minor fourth movement is at the tragic heart of the quartet, the mood established in the strong opening notes, answered in bitter sadness by the first violin. The heart-felt restatement of the theme by the viola, accompanied by the solemn notes of the cello, leads immediately to the last movement, with the first theme stated by the cello, pianissimo and then handed to the first violin. The same instrument introduces the second theme, then taken up by the viola, leading to the return of the first subject in this sonata-rondo movement. A mock-jovial third theme is introduced by the cello. The first theme returns and is elaborated, leading, in a dramatic climax, to the return of the ominous theme of the fourth movement, played by the viola and cello in canon. Other thematic material of the movement is heard again, in full or fragmentary form, before the work comes to an end.
The Fifth Quartet of Shostakovich was first performed in December 1953. It had been completed the year before, but the death of Stalin now provided an opportunity for the performance of works that Shostakovich had held back. Once again the quartet, a work of great intensity, is dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet, entrusted, as always, with its first performance. The opening Allegro non troppo, in sonata form, has a first theme that grows in power, marked always by a brief figure in the viola. There is a more lyrical second subject, introduced by the second violin, and a third, closing theme. The exposition is repeated before the central development. This reaches a dynamic climax with the introduction of a new theme, leading before long to the recapitulation, when the viola figure is heard once more. A sustained high F in the first violin links the movement with the following B minor Andante, with its characteristically Russian theme shared by viola and first violin. There follows a B major theme of particular and unusual tenderness, in largely consonant harmonies. Both themes return, with a closing theme, and a sustained first violin high F sharp, doubled by the viola, with a cello D, links the second with the third movement. Here a Moderato introduction ushers in a sonata-rondo form Allegretto, in which the viola states the first theme. There is a quietly expressive second theme, but tension mounts in the development section, which brings back themes from the earlier movements. Harmonic tension is relaxed when the first violin, followed by the viola, introduces a passage of recitative. The earlier themes of the movement return, as the music dies away.
The present members of the Éder Quartet are the vilolinists György Selmeczi and Péter Szüts. Sandor Papp, viola, and György Eder, 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.
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SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets Nos. 3 and 5