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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets Nos. 14 and 15
BBC Music Magazine
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
String Quartet No.14 in F sharp major, Op. 142
String Quartet No.15 in E flat minor, Op. 144
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.
It may be questioned whether Shostakovich ever seriously intended to write 24 string quartets, as he had once suggested, one in each key. In the end he completed ten quartets in different major keys, the first seven of these in a logical progression of keys, and five in minor keys. String Quartet No.14 in F sharp major, Opus 142, was completed in 1973 and designed for the cellist of the Beethoven Quartet, Sergey Shirinsky, who died during rehearsals for the first performance of String Quartet No.15, which was entrusted then to the Taneyev Quartet. The Beethoven Quartet, formed in 1923 at Moscow Conservatory, had long had an association with Shostakovich and gave the first performances of thirteen of his fifteen string quartets, from the r second to the fourteenth. This last was first performed in Leningrad on 12th November 1973. The first movement, which, like the others, gives prominence to the cello, starts with a repeated viola F sharp, sustained as the cello enters with a characteristic melody built on a repeated sequence, at first descending and then rising, to be taken up by the first violin and developed by the quartet, allowing the cello, in the course of this, to ascend to the highest register. It is the cello that then suggests a further idea, taken up at once and developed by the first violin, accompanied by the cello, which leads the way into a development, accompanied at first by the viola. Both thematic elements are now explored, with the viola, in a solo passage, leading to w hat might seem a false recapitulation. In fact there is no formal recapitulation, but there is an eventual return to the original key, as the cello reclaims the theme with which it had begun. In the slow movement the first violin offers a melancholy meditation in a theme that uses all twelve notes but remains completely tonal. The theme is taken up by the cello, with an accompanying and intensely moving melodic line for the first violin. This relaxes into a passage of greater serenity, a cello melody accompanied by the plucked notes of the other instruments, before first violin and cello join together. The movement continues in poignant and muted meditation, as the principal theme is in part recalled. There follows, without a break, the final Allegretto, introduced by the plucked notes of the first violin, leading to a fragmented and angular passage, followed by a slower section, in which a sombre cello solo is followed by the slow descent of the first violin from the heights. All is serenity as the theme of the Adagio is remembered, as well as the duet of first violin and cello in the first movement, leading to a gentle conclusion firmly in the tonic key.
String Quartet No.15 in E flat minor, Opus 144, was written in 1974 and first performed by the Taneyev Quartet in Leningrad on 15th November of the same year. In character the work is sombre and valedictory, a reflection of the composer's state of health and of the loss of friends, including former members of the Beethoven Quartet. The opening Elegy begins with a modal chant-like melody for the second violin, modified as the first violin enters, followed by the cello and then the viola. There is a shift to the key of C major, with an element of hope in the first violin theme, briefly imitated by the cello, before cello and viola join in more sombre material, leading to a return to the original key and a development of the earlier material. The cello recalls the second theme, followed by the viola. The principal thematic material, with its characteristic opening figuration, continues until the end of a movement that has remained subdued throughout. The Serenade, again, like all the movements, marked Adagio, starts with sustained notes brought to a sudden crescendo, moving from ppp to sfff, as in the final bars of String Quartet No.13, and introducing all twelve notes of the octave. After a fragmentary introduction, the first violin plays a melody, soon using all twelve notes, but in atonal context. A cello version of this is followed by pizzicato chords and an initially ascending series of sustained notes with the same violent crescendo. First violin multiple stopping then allows the cello a share again of the more lyrical material, interrupted by violent chords, and the movement ends with a sustained cello E flat, above which the first violin, in a bitterly rhapsodic style, launches into the Intermezzo. The movement ends in subdued melancholy, connected by held notes to the following Nocturne, with its viola melody. There are moments of relief in muted surroundings that soon turn once again to melancholy, before plucked notes anticipate the start of the Funeral March, with its strongly marked opening and viola lament, then taken up by the cello, followed by the first violin. The same material is continued, with the plucked notes of the cello and a strand of melody leading to the viola solo that ends the movement. The first violin starts the Epilogue with a solo passage, before the chant of the first movement is heard again. A cello solo then allows the cello and then the first violin to recall the second theme of the first movement. The viola remembers the funeral march and there are reminiscences of the frantic figuration of the Intermezzo and of the Serenade. The dark-hued viola leads to a final memory of the funeral march, as the final sounds die 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. 14 and 15