Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Shostakovich - String Quartet No. 1 In C Major

When Dmitri Shostakovich's first symphony was performed when he was nineteen, he was heralded as a prime example of Soviet artistry. Famed conductors Bruno Walter and Leopold Stokowski showed interest in the work amnd performed it. Shostakovich's career as a composer was launched.

But before too many years, Shostakovich was officially denounced in "Muddle Instead Of Music", an article that appeared in the official soviet newspaper Pravda in 1936. The article focused on the composer's opera Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District (written in 1932) and accused the work of being 'formalist, coarse and vulgar'. This was a shock to Shostakovich as the opera had previously been lauded as:
 "the result of the general success of Socialist construction, of the correct policy of the Party...could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture."
Times became desperate for Shostakovich as commissions and performances of his works stopped, and his income dropped to less than half of what it had been.Shostakovich was forced to withdraw his 4th Symphony from rehearsal as well. With the writing of his 5th Symphony, subtitled 'An artist's creative response to just criticism', Shostakovich got back into the graces of the powers that were (Stalin), but only for a time. Further denunciations and trials awaited the composer for the rest of his life.

Shostakovich changed as a composer after the first denunciation, at least with his overtly public compositions. He was in his early thirties when he began his first attempt at a string quartet, shortly after he finished his 5th Symphony.  Shostakovich said:
I began to write it without special ideas and feeling, I thought that nothing would come of it. After all, the quartet is one of the most difficult musical genres. I wrote the first page as a sort of original exercise in the quartet form, not thinking about subsequently completing and releasing it. As a rule, I fairly often write things I don’t publish. They are my type of composer’s studies. But then work on the quartet captivated me and I finished it rather quickly. Don’t expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical. I would call it 'spring-like'.
Indeed the first quartet is of a different style and mood of the 5th symphony and much of Shostakovich's previous works of his early years.  It is neoclassical in style, lyrical, uncomplicated and gives little indication of the mood and style of his later quartets.

Shostakovich continued to write string quartets for the remaining 35 years  of his life, and his 15th quartet was completed only months before his death. Shostakovich used the string quartet form as a haven for his more personal and private compositions. String Quartet No. 1 is in 4 movements:

I. Moderato - A simple melody opens the work, played by the first violin and supported by the other instruments. The second theme is another simple melody accompanied by a sliding figure in the cello. The development section is short and wandering. The return of the first theme in the recapitulation emerges from the wanderings of the development. The second theme returns and the movement winds down and ends quietly.

II. Moderato - The viola presents a folk-influenced theme that goes through seven variations and ends with the theme being played as in the beginning of the movement.

III. Allegro molto - This scherzo cavorts about, the middle trio sings a short song before the scherzo returns for another cavort until the end.

IV. Allegro - In a shortened sonata form this movement is more complex than the others. It has two themes that are rapidly exploited before a short coda ends the work in C major.

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