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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 12
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
String Quartet No.2 in A major, Op. 68
String Quartet No.12 in D flat major, Op. 133
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.
The second of the fifteen string quartets of Shostakovich was written in 1944, six years after the brief first quartet, and dedicated to Vissarion Shebalin, whose 'slavonic' Fifth Quartet had a year earlier been awarded a Stalin Prize. The name of Shebalin was joined with those of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the condemnation of 1948. The work was written in something less than three weeks in September 1944 at the Composers' Retreat of Ivanovo, at a time when Russian victory now seemed assured. The quartet is conceived on a large scale and opens with an Overture in sonata form, the first section exposition repeated before the central development, with its opening of lyrical repose, before an increase in tension and a much modified and concentrated recapitulation that finally brings back the first subject. The B flat major second movement opens with a first violin recitative, in incantatory style, over sustained chords, framing a central Romance in which the first violin continues to have melodic prominence, something of the same mood is continued in the third movement E flat minor Valse, its opening theme entrusted to the cello and containing elements of the dance of death found in other compositions of Shostakovich of the period, lamenting the horrors of war, of persecution and of massacre, the implied subject of the finale of the Piano Trio in E minor of the same summer and overtly dealt with in Symphony No.13. The form of a rondo, in which it is cast, allows the appearance of a variety of episodes. The quartet ends with a theme and variations, preceded by an Adagio introduction. The theme itself, in the manner of a Russian song, is announced by the viola, to be passed to the second violin and then to the first violin, followed finally by the cello. The fifteen variations bring an increase of tension, mounting, until called to order in the final three variations and the return of the Adagio, followed by a hymn-like restatement of the theme itse1f, bringing the quartet to .its A minor conclusion.
Shostakovich dedicated his Quartet No.12 in D flat major, Opus 133, to Dmitry Tsyganov, leader of the Beethoven Quartet, which gave the first performances of many of his fifteen quartets. The work was written in 1968 and given its first performance in Moscow on 14th September the same year. In two movements, it opens with a cello figure that uses all twelve notes of the octave, a series of notes that is in no sense a tone-row in the manner of Schoenberg, but used here purely in atonal context. The figure ends on D flat, the key of the movement, and above its continuation the other instruments enter. The twelve semitones are used for the violin melody that follows, marked Allegretto. The opening cello figure appears again in the viola, with a change of tonality, now followed by the Allegretto theme in the cello, material explored in the rest of the movement. The second movement opens strongly, with trills from the upper instruments answered emphatically by the cello. This provides much of the motivic material for the movement, with a continued reliance on intervallic relationships heard in the first movement, the series of twelve semitones and angular melodic figures based on the fourth. A moving cello Adagio is followed by the muted upper strings, in answer to the impassioned cello line. The first violin, playing pizzicato, again offers the twelve notes, in an ascending sequence. The movement continues, its material closely interwoven and related to the first movement, notably in a gently lyrical Moderato reminiscence of the opening. The rhythmic cello figure of the beginning of the second movement assumes increasing importance as the movement comes to an end. The quartet ends with a firm restatement of the D flat major tonality.
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. 2 and 12