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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets Nos. 10, 11 and 13
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
String Quartet No.10 in A flat major Op. 118
String Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op. 122
String Quartet No.13 in B flat minor, Op. 138
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 wrote his Tenth Quartet during a period of ten days in July 1964 while staying at the Composers' Retreat at Dilizhin in Armenia. He dedicated the work to the composer Moisey, Weinberg, who had taken refuge in the Soviet Union from his native Warsaw in 1939. Weinberg had studied in Warsaw and subsequently at the Minsk Conservatory and had been arrested and held briefly, in detention in 1953. Shostakovich had a high regard for this prolific and original composer. The quartet was first performed in Moscow at the Conservatory in November by the Beethoven Quartet, with Fyodor Druzhinin now replacing his teacher Vadim Borisovsky as violist.
The first movement is opened by the first violin with a melodic line that contrasts the key of A flat with that of E minor within the first four notes and goes on to make tonal use of all twelve notes of the octave. The other instruments of the quartet enter to provide an important rhythmic figure in a warmer texture. There is a sustained singing melody from the cello, at first accompanied only by the viola and an excursion into more sinister territory, after a return of the first theme, with the eerie sounds of a sul ponticello passage, played near the bridge of the instruments. The comfortable ending of the movement, in the safety of A flat major, is disturbed by the anger of the Allegretto furioso that follows. This movement makes insistent use of E minor and the note E in a broadly A minor context. It is dominated by the opening motif and a rhythmic accompanying motif that is soon heard, recalling the first movement. Strident use is made of violin octave double-stopping and other chordal writing, particularly in the lower register of the cello. The Adagio is a fine-drawn passacaglia, its basis in a nine-bar cello theme at the beginning of the movement. At the seventh appearance of the passacaglia theme the first violin moves into the key of A major, followed by the cello, which now brings about a shift of key to prepare for a return to A flat, after the viola has hinted at the theme again as the movement draws to a close. The final Allegretto is linked to the preceding movement by sustained notes of an A flat chord from the first violin and cello. Against this the viola provides a background for a viola theme of characteristic repeated rhythm. This is taken up by the second violin, before an episode intervenes, with the viola again prominent in a new melody. There is a further episode, in which the first violin plucks an accompanying line to the sustained octaves of the material shared between the other instruments. The original rhythmic theme returns, the principal theme of what is, broadly, a rondo, now played by the cello. The music mounts to a dynamic climax, before the appearance of the passacaglia theme from the cello and then the viola, accompanied by the pervasive rhythm of the principal theme. Before long there is a return to two elements of the first movement and it is to the sustained notes of an A flat major chord that the music dies away.
The Eleventh Quartet, in seven movements played without a break, was written early in 1966 and dedicated to the memory of the composer, conductor and violinist Vasily Shirinsky, a founder member of the Beethoven Quartet, in which he played second violin until his death in 1965. By this time the weaknesses of health from which Shostakovich increasingly suffered had been diagnosed as poliomyelitis. He spent the first part of the year at his dacha at Zhukhovka and completed the quartet in March. It was first performed in Leningrad at the Glinka Concert Hall by the Beethoven Quartet at the end of May. The principal thematic material is heard at once from the unaccompanied first violin. When the cello enters it brings a second important thematic element that is to return in other movements. The first violin theme re-appears to bring the short Introduction to a close, the start of a work in F minor, the relative minor of A flat major, the key of the Tenth Quartet, as part of the composer's unrealised aim of writing twenty-four quartets, one in each of the major and minor keys. A repeated F from the first violin links the Introduction with the Scherzo. The insistent thematic material introduced by the first violin is echoed by viola, cello and finally second violin, an element derived from the cello theme of the first movement. The music gradually slows to a halt, with the viola offering the last word before the third-movement Recitative, in which a forceful entry leads to sustained notes against which the first violin provides some justification for the title of the movement in its harsh chords on a rhythm suggested by the viola at the end of the preceding movement. Briefly the cello theme of the first movement is heard, before the cello takes up the harsh chords of the recitative, which the first violin echoes in conclusion. The Étude is derived from the same recurrent material, in rapid semiquavers from the first violin, and later from the cello, and longer sustained notes from the other instruments. The Humoresque that follows starts with a falling interval from which the second violin derives a repeated ostinato accompaniment for the whole movement. Against this appeals again the thematic material from the first movement, The Elegy is a funeral march, the sombre rhythm stated first by viola and cello in a derivative of the first movement cello theme. The second violin offers the first elegiac melody and in conclusion provides a muted echo to the first violin, The last movement is a muted epilogue. Against sustained notes from viola and cello and a second violin ostinato the first violin brings back again the theme of the Scherzo and there are references to the first movement as this tightly knit quartet comes to an end.
Shostakovich's Thirteenth Quartet was written in 1970 in the intervals of orthopaedic treatment in a clinic at Kurgan which temporarily restored some of the use of his hands, before the set-back of another heart-attack. The quartet was dedicated to Vadim Borisovsky, the viola-player of the original Beethoven Quartet, and owes something of the extreme height to which the viola is taken to the performance of Borisovsky's pupil and successor, Fyodor Druzhinin. It was first performed by the Beethoven Quartet in Leningrad in December of the year of composition. The viola starts the quartet with a twelve-note theme, in which the descending interval of a semitone has an importance soon to be reflected in the use of the same interval in dissonant harmonic conjunction. The first violin takes up the theme, leading to a passage of increased intensity. It is from the opening that the single movement develops, Before long a scherzo-like passage appears, marked by percussive interjections as the bow is used to strike the belly of the instrument. The music slows to a passage of sustained intensity and then of hushed trills, above which the plucked notes of the first violin are heard. Strident chords of a minor ninth then allow the viola to restate the first theme, now a semitone higher, followed, as before, by the other instruments. There is a short passage of cello double-stopping and material developed from the main theme, with the cello continuing, accompanied by the viola in sombre duet. In the final passage it is the viola that reaches upwards, providing a last stratospheric B flat in a crescendo in which the violins join in conclusion.
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. 10, 11 and 13