Friday, January 4, 2013

Shostakovich: Quartet No. 12 in D flat, op. 133

I had an interesting professor in my first year English class. He had assigned us "In the Penal Colony" by Franz Kafka to read. This is a short story about a penal colony where they have this diabolical machine that carves the name of your crime on your body. The next class he came in, tossed the book on his lectern and said: "that is a very funny story and I'm going to show you why and how" and so he did. By means of incongruity and exaggeration, Kafka manages a rather dark humor.

I think I did something the same with the last Shostakovich quartet I posted about, no. 11: everyone is telling you how dark and moody and bitter it is emotionally and I point out how one movement is a joke on the second violin player! There is a famous quote by the English writer Horace Walpole that goes "The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel." If you just listen passively to Shostakovich, I suppose his music can often feel bleak or tormented. But if you listen a little more actively and think about it a bit, or have a look at the score, then you start to see a whole lot of other things: such as how the fifth movement of the 11th Quartet, is a joke on the second violin player.

If you look at what is written about the String Quartet No. 12 by Shostakovich, you will notice a big fuss made about how it begins with a twelve-tone row. Here is that opening line, given to the cello:

The use of tone-rows, usually referred to as "serialism" by theorists, was developed by the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) between the wars. After the end of the Second World War it became the mainstream compositional method among 'serious' composers. Of course not everyone jumped on board as the whole point of serialism was to avoid any suggestion of tonality by using every note in a particular sequence before they could be repeated. A whole generation of already-established composers were not ready to give up tonality and this generation included Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Stravinsky, who by this time was long-exiled from Russia, began experimenting with serialism in the 1950s. Shostakovich was not so eager--for one thing he had barely escaped severe punishment for allowing himself to be influenced by the Western avant-garde during the Stalin years. But by 1968, when this quartet was written, Stalin was long dead.

So when Shostakovich opened his 12th String Quartet with a tone row, it created a bit of a fuss. Here was one of the last hold-outs finally giving in to serialism, the new musical language. But was he really? He still gives this quartet a key signature--five flats indicating D flat major. If you look at the first measure of my example above, you can see that yes, all twelve notes are stated. But the last note of the first measure, an A flat, the 11th note of the row, is followed by D flat, the last note of the row. A flat to D flat gives us a nice V - I cadence in D flat, of course. And then the next thing we have is a little melodic sequence. Hmmm, where have we heard this sequence before? Ah, the first movement of Beethoven's quartet op 59, no 1, nicknamed the "Razumovsky" quartets after the Russian nobleman who commissioned them. Here is that movement. The motif occurs many times in the development section but you first hear it at the 2:48 mark in this performance.

Shostakovich then goes on to write the first movement of this two movement quartet using as material that twelve tone phrase, which he uses as a melody introducing different sections, the sequence from Beethoven and a third element, this:

That's our old friend the anapest that we saw Shostakovich using in his String Quartet No. 7 to knit things together. I talked about that in this post. Actually it is two shorts and two longs which is called an "iamb" or "minor ionic". Here is an excellent performance of the first movement of the String Quartet No. 12 so you can hear how he puts it all together:

The second movement starts with completely new material--or does it?

A trill (or three trills) plus a little descending motif. The second movement is about twenty minutes long so this isn't much material. The whole first section develops the basic (two part) idea. We start to see that the descending motif is actually related to that anapest figure from the first movement. Part of the development takes those trills and turns them into four-note groups of sixteenth notes moving up a step in pairs which, how odd!, happens to be very like the Beethoven sequence from the first movement. After this first section there is an adagio that I haven't sat down and worked over to see what it might be related to, so for the moment, let's just call it a contrasting section. Then, starting with some rather comic pizzicatos in the first violin, the adagio transitions back into that Beethoven sequence and we get all the material from the first movement again, handled differently and combined with the second movement material. The ending is a delightful synthesis of the anapest with the descending cello motif and interspersed with bits from that twelve-tone motif. Here, have a listen to the whole second movement:

You know what I think Shostakovich is doing here? I think he is saying, look, give me some materials, anything at all, a little twelve-tone tune, a little Beethoven quote, maybe some anapest, and I will knit together for you a very nice string quartet. This is masterful composing and what it reminds me of most of all is the way Beethoven went at composing a string quartet. The details of the methods are very different, but the attitude, the way of making a tiny motif generate a lot of music, this is very similar. Pretty good composer, Shostakovich...

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