Sunday, May 5, 2013

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, op. 138

Looking back I just noticed that the last post I put up on the Shostakovich string quartets was way back in January and now it is May already! So let me take up the next one, No. 13 in B flat minor. The site devoted to a study of all the string quartets is worth reading to give some background. Here is the link to the essay on No. 13. I offer my usual caveat: this is useful for the biographical context and for getting  a sense of what sorts of things have been said about the quartet. Don't look for any original analysis, though and be prepared for prose like this:
The middle section, Doppio movimento, is a languid dance of death punctuated by sinister plucking of strings and bone-like cracks as the bows of the second violin, the viola and the cello strike against the bellies of their instruments.
Well, sure, ok. But I think that before I jump to the "languid dance of death" conclusion, I would rather have a look at the music. Ok?

This quartet is in a single movement with a tempo change in the middle: Adagio – Doppio movimento – Tempo primo. It begins, as every commentator instantly points out, with a twelve-tone row in the viola:

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I think that every time Shostakovich uses a twelve-tone row, he is doing so ironically. Like Alban Berg, he constructs this row to defeat the purpose of a twelve-tone row. Instead of avoiding tonality, it actually promotes it! We have an opening triad (B flat, D flat, G flat), the last note of which resolves to F. In the key of B flat this is a 6-5 suspension. The next group of notes is a sequence, re-stating the opening group a step lower (A natural, C, E natural) resolving to E flat. In the key of B flat this is an altered vii chord substituting for a dominant harmony and the suspension is another 6-5 (just think of the E natural as an F flat). The last group, after a D natural upbeat, gives us two more suspensions: 7-6 and 2-1 for a Phrygian cadence. In fact, what we have been given here is a statement of the tonic harmony (B flat), a statement of the "dominant" harmony (A natural) and a presentation, four times, of the basic ur-motif: a falling minor second. Shostakovich needs little more to build a string quartet with and the missing element, some kind of metric 'foot', will soon appear. He actually saves it for the beginning of the new tempo:

Wait, what's that? Not our old friend the anapest? Yes, it is and I talked about it a lot in connection with the String Quartet no. 7, here. One consistent element in Shostakovich string quartets (and other music) is his use of small rhythmic motifs as what we might think of as "connective tissue". As we have the terms ready made from metric prosody, I call this an "anapest", meaning a figure consisting of two short repeated notes followed by a longer note. Shostakovich makes these figures prominent by using repeated notes, something not found in the rest of the music--this accentuates the rhythmic aspect, of course. What's that? You say that all three of these notes are the same length? Yes, sure, but the rest following the third note gives it the effect of a longer note.

Another basic element of the piece is a kind of austere chorale-like passage that is the first thing we hear after the viola solo:

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This is an example of how Shostakovich alters so much of traditional harmony. This is "on" the dominant, focusing on C (a triad built on C is the dominant of the dominant), but it is incomplete, with an E flat instead of an E natural, so no leading tone to F. Also, the suspensions don't work properly as we are missing the root that would make sense of them. G flat to F over a B flat is a 6-5 suspension. So, a bare chorale that only hints at traditional harmony. Later on, he expands this in an interesting way:

Here, he takes the repeated-note anapest figure and reverses it with the long note first and doubling the short notes. Harmonically the chord suggests D flat, the relative major. But the B double-flat, together with the G flat in the viola turns it into a G flat minor chord in second inversion. In the next measure a C flat is laid over top of this which recalls the B natural of the opening phrase. The C flat resolves to the B double flat. Shostakovich continues with variations in eighth notes on these basic ideas. Let's listen. Here is the St. Petersburg Quartet with the first ten minutes of the piece:

So what is happening in that crazy middle bit? One of the things he is doing is piling up those suspensions. I suppose we could stop calling them suspensions and just call them "minor second cells". But he originally presented them as suspension-like figures. In any case, what he does several times is present them as a stack of intervals:

UPDATE: I misread one of the clefs, it is actually C with D flat in the cello, but D and E flat in the viola, then E natural with F in the second violin and F# with G in the first violin. It is akin to a stretto I suppose. Then what does he do with this chord? You guessed it, the anapest:

There is a kind of fugal or scherzo-like passage. I say this because there is a lot of imitative counterpoint and scurrying rhythms. Here is part of the theme:

This is in the second violin starting at rehearsal number 22. It's our old friend the second again, but this time a major second. Another part of the theme expands this into a triplet:

Now we have the minor second above and a major second below. Oh, both of these last two examples are with the five flats key signature and treble clef. Apart from this theme, some tapping on the wood and pizzicato accompaniment figures one other element appears: a kind of interjection, usually in the viola or cello. Here it is in the viola:

Now this seems to be some genuinely new material. But if we look a little closer, what we see are two of the suspension figures buried inside the line. This is in the viola, so alto clef. The two suspension figures are D flat to C and then G natural to G flat.

You can hear "languid dance of death" if you want, but what I hear is a fascinating musical structure--with lots of beautiful passages and some really crunchy contrasting passages with those stacked minor seconds. Heck, maybe it is a "languid dance of death", but there's nothing languid about it and it seems pretty lively!

That's probably more than enough analysis for you to get into the music. Here is the rest of the piece. It concludes with the original tempo. In the last section, those minor and major seconds return as trills and there is lots of that anapest figure. The very end uses the same pitches as the opening to create a dominant feel. This is the viola in a very high tessitura, notated in treble clef, so the pitches are G flat, A flat, A natural, D natural, A natural, E natural:

Then, in the strangest ending yet to a Shostakovich quartet, the three highest instruments simply play a B flat, crescendo:

Cut off, into nothingness. Now let's hear the final part of the piece. For some reason Blogger simply refuses to find the second part of the St. Petersburg Quartet performance, so here is the Borodin Quartet with the whole piece in one clip:

The only ending I can think of that really resembles that one is the end of this piece:

Of course, I don't claim any influence either way, but it is interesting to note that the Beatles finished the album Abbey Road in August 1969 and Shostakovich finished the String Quartet No. 13 in August 1970. Maybe it was just in the air...

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