Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Shostakovich - String Quartet No. 8 In C Minor Opus 110

The String Quartet No. 8, Opus 110 was the only major work that Shostakovich composed outside of Russia.  He was in the East German town of Görlitz. It was shortly after he was forced to join the Communist Party in 1960, and he was there to ostensibly work on music for a film to be made jointly by East German film makers about the bombing of Dresden in World War II. Shostakovich was not inspired to write any film music, but he did write this quartet in three days. Shostakovich wrote a letter to a friend about the quartet:

"While there I was provided with ideal working conditions...The good working conditions were fruitful; while there I composed my Eighth Quartet. There was really no point in racking my brains trying to write film music. At the time I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Instead, I wrote this quartet which is ideologically suspect and of no use to anyone. I figured that no one would think of composing a work honoring me after I'm dead, so I'd better do it myself. The title page might read "Dedicated to  the composer himself'". 

The quartet is written in 5 movements without pause: 

I. Largo -  Shostakovich went on in the letter to describe the opening theme of the movement:
"The quartet's main theme is taken from my initials - D, S [E-flat in German notation], C, H [B-flat in German notation].
The movement begins with the solo cello, and in turn all the instruments play the theme, giving it a canonic treatment. The instruments continue to play slowly, and in the next few bars all twelve tones in the chromatic scale are played. The harmonic ambiguity is brought to a stop when the home key of C minor finally arrives, and a quote from his first symphony is played. This entire quartet is full of quotations of his own music, something Shostakovich did often in his later works. The movement suddenly shifts to the next:

II. Allegro molto - The start of this movement is in G-sharp minor, a key that sounds odd in relation to the first movement's delvings in C minor. G major, the dominant of C minor would be the classical progression, but Shostakovich opts for an increase in tension and insecurity. 
The 4-note theme makes its appearance in altered form as the music skids, skitters, and screeches, sometimes quite violently. The movement comes to seamless screeching halt as the music shifts tempo and key, and leads to:

III. Allegretto - This movement is in G minor and repurposes the initial 4-note theme into a grotesque dance. Tension is somewhat relieved, but it's still not music of calmness. The music winds down with a violin solo that leads to:

IV. Largo - One instrument plays a drone as the others play 3 sharply articulated notes in rapid succession. The music then enters into the key of C-sharp minor, with the drone and three notes repeated. The music settles into an uneasy calmness as the volume level is brought down, and the momentum slows to a drag. The feeling is of resigned calmness, a marked contrast to the previous three movements. The drone and 3 note motif reappears, and leads seamlessly to the final movement:

V. Largo - Shostakovich has peppered this quartet with many self-quotations, but there are none in this movement save for the 4-note theme that is now given a contrapuntal treatment as the music remains slow, mournful, and quietly ends in C minor. 

Surprisingly, this quartet is one of Shostakovich's most popular. It has been said that all 5 movements are in different shades of darkness and ambiguity. It was a very emotional work for the composer, as he went on in the letter quoted earlier:
The pseudo-tragedy of this quartet is such that, while I was composing it, the tears just kept streaming down like urine after a half-dozen beers. When I got back home, I tried playing it once or twice on the piano,  and each time I started weeping all over again. But this time, not so much from my pseudo-tragedy, but in amazement of its splendid formal structure. Of course, the self satisfaction implicit in that will no doubt soon be followed by my intoxication on feelings of self-criticism. 

No comments:

Post a Comment