String Quartet No. 8, Dmitri Shostakovich

by tacet

Dmitri Shostakovich is rare in the canon of the greats in that he is associated almost as much with politics as with his art. By 1960, having previously been denounced twice by Stalin’s regime for writing unpatriotic music, he was living in obscurity and was blackmailed into becoming a shackled “artist” producing watered-down, placatory works for the Party. Coupled with the death of his first wife and his increasingly suicidal state, the nihilistic tone of the work comes as little surprise.

It was in his chamber music, not his symphonies, that Shostakovich left his most heartfelt and personal musical testimonies and which therefore provide the real key to understanding the man. As one of the works written “for the desk drawer”, String Quartet No. 8 wears its heart on its sleeve, containing no empty sentimentalism like those found in the pages of his public works. Composed in only three days while the composer was visiting the ruined city of Dresden, the work almost lacks the energy to venture out of its own bleak landscape.

Almost every work of his is rich in self-quotation and coded messages. In a characteristically pessimistic move, Shostakovich wrote the work as a kind of musical autobiography, since the authorities had guaranteed that there would be no chance of anyone else being able to publish one. He quotes his own symphonies and chamber music as well as Russian folk tunes, creating a web of allusions which supports several conflicting readings, ranging from a memorial to the victims of fascism to an artist’s suicide note. In a poignant but not isolated gesture, all five movements are ceaselessly imprinted with the motif D – E flat – C – B (or, in the German nomenclature, D – S – C – H): a musical spelling of his own initials.

Along with the overriding tone of loss approaching insanity comes a note of retrospection. The self-conscious modeling of the work on the anguished late quartets of Beethoven adds a historical dimension to Shostakovich’s desperate attempt to be remembered as a great composer, while his labyrinthine narratives of polyphonic writing set the backward-looking musical techniques in an eerily dislocated context. His writing is broadly tonal, but ventures schizophrenically into more acerbic, dissonant territory, especially in the frenzied middle movements. The quartet begins and ends in a minor mode, drained of energy, which is intermittently undermined by the full range of the chromatic scale, contributing to the work’s uniquely unsettling emptiness. The work is incredibly compact and all five movements blend into each other, transforming the conventional movement structure into a dramatic stream of consciousness.

The ambiguity of meaning, coupled with the deep sense of isolation and regret, means that this music, resonating with bitter universal experience, transcends individual suffering to address all of human despair.

Below is a recording of String Quartet No. 8, accompanied by a brief listening guide.

The first movement opens with the four instruments stating the DSCH motif in a slow, breathless canon, before each retreats to the background, which itself becomes riddled with outbursts (0:36). The first point of any definition comes at the cadence at 0:50, before fading back into obscurity with a pensive, winding violin monody over a drone in the cello and viola; this itself is given a mournful, lamenting quality by the addition of a second violin at 1:59. At 3:03, hints of brightness melt back into dissonance in the same veiled texture as the opening, before the beginning is restated. A single note is taken up at 4:29 and we are propelled into the frenetic second movement, a march taken at a ridiculous pace, evoking the sound of anti-aircraft fire (spelt in an inversion of the composer’s name) at 4:47. At 5:26 a buildup strained to breaking point explodes into a huge, quasi-orchestral rendition of a Jewish Folk tune, quoted from the composer’s Piano Trio No. 2. The movement continues with relentless drive, exacerbating all previous sections, before unexpectedly cutting off.

The third movement is a parody of a waltz, punctuated by ill-timed silences (0:14). The instruments mock the simplicity of the harmonic structure of the dance with their own, grotesque version (0:48), breaking down into chaos before the viola confidently asserts its own march rhythm at 1:26. At 1:46 the violin and cello steal each other’s roles, with the former quoting the composer’s 1st Cello Concerto, before the latter plays an ethereal melody that should belong to the violin. At 2:33, the waltzing viola is forced to provide its own accompaniment, in a cruel transformation of the opening, before an unexpected recitative.

The fourth movement is defined by savagery, as the journey reaches its most desolate point. At 0:41 the viola and cello quote the revolutionary song ‘Tormented by Grievous Bondage’ in an intensely sinister manner. At 1:49 the two violins recall the moment of tenderness from the first movement, like two people comforting each other in adversity. A triumphalist finale would be misplaced in the midst of such suffering, so what we get instead at 4:47, realised with more agonising dissonances, is a disappearance back into the barren landscape of the first movement.

The above recording is by the Emerson Quartet whose magisterial cycle of the complete quartets is among the very finest. For a taste of genuine Soviet misery try the St Petersburg Quartet’s reading, available on DDD.

Shostakovich’s 5th and 7th Symphonies represent more public displays of defiance, showcased in a punchy, neo-Mahlerian symphonic style. Prokofiev’s caustic ‘War’ Sonatas for Piano (Nos. 6, 7 & 8) provide a similarly personal insight into political resistance.

Artwork: Babi Yar, Shalom Goldberg

by Joel Sandelson