July 19 Concert - Shostakovich's String Quartet, No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

Dimitri Shostakovich, (Russia; 1906-1975) 
String Quartet, No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

Dimitri Shostakovich, 1942

Dimitri Shostakovich, 1942

    When you read Adam Neiman’s program notes for the Thursday, July 19th MMF concert you will see he wrote that he “programmed reflexively” when he included Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op.110, the subject of my blog this week. I was most curious to understand his use of the term in the context of his music commentaries. I found a variety of definitions: most of them explain exactly what our Music Director had in mind. In no particular order and loosely rewritten, the definitions are: a spontaneous response to something that has happened, an immediate reaction to a work or concern regarding art, writing, or a mental state, describing an almost automatic, involuntary awareness and analytic focus. You will readily understand the formation and cohesion of the full program if you consider these definitions in relation to the historical background of the four works you will be hearing. A look into the cultural and political world in which each composer lived will demonstrate the connectivity that binds these glorious works together, musically and emotionally.

In particular, I listened to the Shostakovich Quartet with new ears over the last few weeks with the wish to write something of interest beyond Adam’s excellent notes in the MMF program book. Quite honestly, I first found the work difficult to take. I listened again and again searching for something to hold on to besides the heart wrenching horror and sadness that permeates the work. As I continued to play the piece and it became familiar to me, I was pulled into the musical fabric. I found the material that is so harmonically ambivalent, so filled with chromaticism (the use of at least some of the 12 half tones within a 8 note scale) to be a major source of the unrest and the conflict of emotions that is heard throughout the entire piece. The musical phrases are often unresolved. They do not come to rest. The alternation between the perfect blending of the string voices and the deliberate contrasting and opposition of the four instruments furthered the sense of agitation and hopelessness that I heard. The lower ranges of the instruments are heavily used. Then, to further my understanding of the piece I looked at the back story of the work, actually there is more than one, to help me comprehend and then appreciate the dark and profound musical setting of the whole piece. Let me fill you in.

Shostakovich portrayed as a firefighter during the bombing raids

Shostakovich portrayed as a firefighter during the bombing raids

Fifteen years after Allied Bombers destroyed Dresden, frequently called “Florence on the Elbe”, Shostakovich was in Germany to work on a score for a documentary about the horrendous devastation. Overwhelmed by seeing the city still brought to its knees, the composer dropped his assigned work and composed Quartet No. 8 in just three days. The dedication reads, “In Memory of the Victims of Fascism and War.”

The year was 1960. The Stalin regime was over. Krushchev was in power and Breznev was yet to come. Now the back stories become of interest. How does the Russian political scene relate to the dedication, that at least outwardly, refers to Hitler and WWll? It is not a hard connection to make, is it? Add another story line here: the words from the composer that he had really thought of dedicating the work to himself because no-one else would compose a work in his memory when he died. Why the self pity? The composer’s beloved first wife had died and a second marriage did not work out. Now add to this unhappy situation that from 1936 on Shostakovich had been subjected to public chastising by government officials for “Formalism” in his compositions. To the proponents of “Soviet Realism” “Formalism” seemed to be any new or different music, and specifically music without Russian folk references or heroic salutes to the people of Russia. “Soviet Realism” was any music that glorified the people and the Russian work ethic. Back in 1936 Stalin attended a performance of the composer’s well received 1934 opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. He stormed out of the performance. The next day Stalin and Pravda, the daily newspaper that was the official organ of the Soviet Communist Party, publicly condemned the dramatic opera as depraved. During the war years that soon followed, Shostakovich was honored and applauded for his new symphonies. After the war, time passed somewhat peacefully for Shostakovich, but he felt constant angst that he would be publicly admonished for his non-conformist compositions. In 1948 he and Prokofiev and others were singled out for “formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies.” He went so far as to write a profuse apology agreeing that he had made mistakes and would endeavor to correct them in his future compositions. Stalin died in March of 1953, incidentally on the same day as Prokofiev! (There were no flowers left in Moscow to place on Prokofiev’s grave as they were all sent to Stalin’s funeral and grave.) The monstrous Stalin was gone, but Russian musicians remained shackled by the Communist doctrines heavily enforced by Krushchev and his successors. 

Many years later, in the 1980s, the autobiographical elements in the Quartet and in several orchestral pieces became the subject of much conjecture with the publication of Testimony, a book containing Shostakovich’s spoken memoirs and interviews with the author and many letters. The book was highly controversial. It is now accepted that most of the book is authentic, although questions remain concerning many of the entries. The public Shostakovich and the private Shostakovich co-exist to this day. Was he a reluctant supporter of the Communist Government, or a closet dissident, or rather simply a contrite disobedient servant of the Soviet regimes? So much for the harsh world in which he lived.    

Now let me discuss the music!

I hope you will take my strong suggestion to listen to the Quartet before the riveting live performance next week. Here is a look at the music itself. My hope is to hold your hand as you take this magnificent rollercoaster ride of sound and color. Above all, let the music speak to you in whatever way seems right for you.

The work’s opening four notes immediately bear witness to the gravity and tension that will be at the core of the five movement, 20 minute piece. This motto is the work’s main theme and appears prominently in all but the fourth movement. The theme is the acronym in German musical notation for the first four letters of D. Shostakovich’s name. In German the musical nota-tion is D-S-C-H. (The actual notes in our notation are D-E flat (s is pro-nounced, Es in German)-C-B.) You will hear the short phrase first played by the cello, followed by the viola, and then the violins. Three of the movements are marked Largo, attacca (very slow, proceed without pause) The Italian word attacca placed at the end of a movement in the score or in a movement's description headings indicates there is no pause between movements. IE: continue the attack. The heart wrenching first movement is a pseudo rondo (very loosely following the ABACABA form) containing fugal material. The second movement marked Allegro molto, attacca (very fast) plunges ahead with an insistent, frenzied pronouncement of the four note theme and a Jewish melody that is painfully anguished and heard fortissimo. It is a quote from the composer’s Piano Trio No 2. The third movement Allegretto, attacca (slightly less fast than allegro) is strident and threatening. A ludicrous waltz-like passage pairs with the four notes. The fourth movement grows out of a quote from Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. (You might like to take time to become acquainted with this glorious work.) It is in the fourth movement that the music is so overtly descriptive in its sound. Symphony No. 8, a love aria from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and a Russian prison song are quoted among other references to earlier works. The prison song, Tormented by Heavy Bondage was a favorite of Lenin’s. It was played at his funeral. Suddenly there is horrendous rapping or knocking on a door. Is it Nazi soldiers? Or Soviet officials? Or is it gunshots? Or is it the smokey flak of the German defense guns? It is a frightening, altogether authentic, programmatic sound. You may even catch some Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and their evocations of Fate. The final movement is a fugal section again relying on the four note phrase. The contrapuntal treatment is a shortened reprise of the first movement. As the movement draws to the end the immense sadness is heard once again in a final mournful playing of Shostakovich’s initials.

The monumental work is over. The dedication first imprinted on the score stands. It is certainly a tribute in memory of humanity lost. The official Soviet statement regarding Quartet No. 8 was made by the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, the chamber ensemble that played the premiere performance of the piece. He said, “In this music, there is a portrait of Shostakovich, the musician, the citizen and the protector of peaceful and progressive humanity.” Is this the musician who so reluctantly joined the Communist Party due to the expectation he would do so after he was elected the Head of the Soviet Musicians’ Union shortly while before he composed the work? 

Surely this hugely powerful music, with its constant statements of Shostakovich’s initials and many references to his previous works is an immensely personal statement expressing condemnation of all autocratic regimes. Yet, just as surely, it is an urgent revelation of the constant anxiety and depression the composer felt for so many decades.

At the final measure the score is marked, Morendo, Italian, meaning dying, fading away. The impact this brilliantly conceived work will have on you, the listener, will will not fade away. The music speaks to the soul.

- Fran Rosenthal


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