Saturday, December 22, 2012

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 10, op 118 (1964)

After all these symphonies, I feel the urge to go back and look at some more string quartets. Like many creative people, after a success in one direction, Shostakovich seems to have felt the urge to go in a completely different direction. The String Quartet No. 8 was a deeply disturbing piece for him to write and after it he did not write a quartet for some years. Then he broke the silence by writing two in the summer of 1964: numbers 9 and 10. Way back in October of 2011 I posted on Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 9. Both the 9th and 10th quartets are light-hearted works and both were premiered in Moscow by the Beethoven quartet in November of 1964.

There are always two contradictory urges present when composing: one is the urge for variety and contrast and the other is the urge for consistency and unity. The contradiction becomes particularly interesting when you are composing a multi-movement piece. Each one of Shostakovich's quartets is unique, but he developed a formula for making them unique! It is a bit like building a house: every house needs the same things: kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, living areas. But how you deliver these elements can vary enormously. In a string quartet, the basic materials are chosen carefully. For example, there is often a basic rhythmic cell that tends to permeate the whole work--every movement. We see this in the Quartet No. 7 that I talked about here. That quartet used the anapest 'foot' which is two short syllables followed by one long (this comes from English and classical prosody). The Quartet No. 10 also uses the anapest, but to quite different effect. Here is the first theme:

No anapest there. It comes with the second phrase when each of the other three instruments enters with an anapest on repeated notes. But here is an interesting thing about this theme. The key is A flat, but the theme makes the A flat sound, not like a tonic, but like a diminished fourth (one of Shostakovich's favorite intervals). The held A flat is answered with an E minor chord! The E natural is a diminished fourth below the tonic. A diminished fourth is the enharmonic equivalent to a major third. Interestingly enough, both the middle movements of the quartet are in C major, a major third above the tonic. This is just one subtle detail that adds to the structural unity of the quartet.

Later on in the first movement we see a lot of this rhythm: long, short, short--the opposite of the anapest known as the dactyl. Shostakovich gets to this by trimming that first theme from a half note (tied to an eighth) followed by three eighths, to a quarter followed by two eighths. Simple, but ingenious. Trimming it even further, he gets to simple repeated eighth notes. Let's listen to that first movement and hear how he does it. Here is the Borodin Quartet:

The second movement, marked Allegretto furioso begins with this theme:

A couple of things to notice here: the rhythm is another dactyl; and the contour is very similar to the first movement theme I quoted above. Here the descent also leads to a note outside the key--in this case, a B flat. As in the first movement, the accompaniment to this theme is in anapests, repeated notes. Some call this movement a scherzo, but it is really one of those wild, swirling Russian dances Shostakovich does so well. Here are the Borodin Quartet again:

The third movement, an Adagio, is based on a nine-measure passacaglia theme heard in the cello first:

The most distinctive thing about this theme is the eighth note group moving to the upper neighbor and back--and this is another anapest, of course! Here is the St. Petersburg Quartet:

The finale begins with this theme:

This begins with another dactyl and then continues with a contour roughly similar to the theme of the first movement, though much compressed. The point of me mentioning that the themes of this quartet so often feature either anapests or dactyls is that this is a unifying factor. If you look at other music, you will see that there are many other options available. As in so many other quartets by Shostakovich, he weaves the themes from the other movements into the last movement, which becomes a kind of synthesis. In a particularly strong version of this method, the cello quotes the theme from the first movement at the very end. Following this, the first violin has a few fragments from the passacaglia theme and ends with the beginning theme from this last movement that I have above. A summary of a summary if you like. Now let's hear that last movement:

So this quartet is a beautiful example of how to deal with the contradictions of variety and unity. Unlike any other of his quartets, but using the same basic techniques to articulate different basic materials.

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