Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Shostakovich String Quartets

Shostakovich in 1935
It is not possible to approach Shostakovich's quartets the way I did the Beethoven piano sonatas by choosing one from the early, middle and late periods. This is partly because Shostakovich's life does not divide up that way and partly because he did not begin to write string quartets until after the great crisis brought on by his first denunciation by the authorities in 1936 for writing "muddle instead of music". For an excellent online guide to all his quartets, go here. All Shostakovich's quartets come from his middle and later years and his intention was to write twenty-four, one in each possible key. Unfortunately this project was not completed, but we have fifteen quartets to go with the fifteen symphonies. Those listeners used to the symphonies, with their large forces and often long durations, will find the quartets much more spare. Let's start with the first one, written in 1938. Before this, he had written almost no chamber music apart from the Cello Sonata of 1934. According to the composer he started it merely as a compositional study, but "work on the quartet captivated me and I finished it rather quickly." He also described it as having "bright, springlike moods". Quite suitable for a first work in the genre. Here is the St. Petersberg Quartet playing the first two movements, both moderato:

The last two movements are an allegro molto followed by an allegro. The whole quartet is about 14 minutes in duration, or half the length of some of his longer symphonic movements. Here is the third movement, a scherzo, played by the Emerson Quartet:

And the finale, also in sonata form like the first movement:

Cheerful, accomplished music with no great profundity. One of the most interesting things about this is that Shostakovich does not seem to have felt the great weight of the string quartet tradition on him that tended to crush composers like Brahms. He set out just to write a piece of music. But by the end of his fifteen quartets he had made the greatest contribution to the string quartet since Beethoven.

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