Sunday, October 23, 2011

Shostakovich Quartets, Part 4

Shostakovich wrote two quartets in 1960. The first, in F sharp minor, and the shortest of all his quartets,  is dedicated to his first wife, Nina. No-one seems to know what to say about this quartet! I've read lengthy commentaries that consist of nothing but metaphors and it isn't clear that the writer realizes that they are just metaphors--and unlikely ones at that! Take this description:
Suddenly with the commencement of the third movement we are confronted with the fortissimo yapping of an attacking dog. 
Uh-huh. Well, the dynamic marking is ff, he does have that right! I just don't see any barking and attacking dogs. Let's have a look at the music. Here are some of the themes from the quartet:

Click to enlarge
You know how in gangster movies there always seems to be a character that says "it's all about the Benjamins"? In this quartet a lot of it seems to be about the anapests. In metric prosody, an anapest is two short syllables followed by a long. As a musician I want to ask, but where is the barline? The first beat of a measure is inherently a strong beat, so where you place the shorts and long in relation to that strong beat is important. Take that first theme, from the first movement. The two shorts are on the offbeat and lead to the strong beat. Then, the next theme, on the second line, has the strong beat falling on the middle note. The third theme, on the third line, has the strong beat on the first of the three. So in the first movement, Shostakovich makes use of all three possibilities. The fourth line of the examples is from the second, slow, movement and the last line is from the last movement. Notice that the two are linked as the eighth notes at the end of the fourth line are exactly the same as the fifth line, but written differently. B double flat is the same as A natural and the tempo change from slow to fast makes the eighth note equal to the whole note. Notice also that the second theme is an inverted version of the first theme, going up instead of down. The third theme is falling like the first, but in different note values. Lots of complex interrelationships between all these themes.

Let's listen to the quartet. Here is the St. Petersburg Quartet. There are two clips; the first is the first two movements and the second is the last movement:

This is a wonderfully tightly written quartet with a group of closely-related themes. The first movement uses a number of rhythmic techniques to create a fluid effect. The second movement is static, relying on repetition to establish a dreamlike mood. The third movement is linked to the previous ones, but is more aggressive and introduces a very quick fugue. Halfway through the themes from the first two movements return in a varied form. It ends quietly with the three note anapest. No attacking dogs. As for the pitches, notice the flattening of the notes that is typical of a lot of Russian modes. In the first theme, for example, F sharp, E flat, D, C sharp, C natural, B flat, A, G natural, F sharp. Except for a couple of passing notes, this outlines the octatonic scale, often used in Russian music, that alternates semitones and tones. It doesn't really correspond to the Western major and minor scales. This kind of modality underlies a lot of the exotic sound of Shostakovich's melodies--why they seem to wander in and out of what we hear as major and minor. It is really neither!

That should get you started on this quartet!

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