Dmitri Shostakovich, 1906-1975
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in c minor comprises a mere twenty minutes of non-stop music, written in three days in 1960 as a distraction from a project to write a film score about the Dresden fire bombings of WWII. In a letter, Shostakovich sarcastically dismissed it as an “ideological piece of no use to anyone”. Officially, he dedicated it to the “Victims of Fascism and WWII”, but privately, he described it as a eulogy for himself, an epitaph close relations called a suicide note. The work has since become one of the most important string quartets of the 20th century, well known, frequently performed, extensively discussed. Vivid, dramatic, mesmerizing and devastating, this compact but dense quartet contains a lifetime of music: the life and music of Dmitri Shostakovich.
As other composers have done, Shostakovich wrote his name into his music. He used the initials DSCH from the German transliteration of his name (Dmitri SCHostakoivch). In German music notation, the letters spell a four note musical motive, D, E-flat (S), C, B (H). This musical theme saturates the entire quartet, appearing in numerous, immediately recognizable transformations throughout the texture from violin to cello, from melody to accompaniment. It provides the first four notes of the quartet, and a primary element of the first movement. It flashes constantly as a frightening ostinato throughout the violent second movement, mockingly dances in the main melody of the macabre scherzo, languishes in the trio, and ultimately becomes the main subject of a heartbreaking fugue in the finale. Seemingly absent from the apocalyptic fourth movement (it surfaces once at the end as a transition), the motive is disguised within the main theme, a twisted inversion of the itself that ends abruptly with three devastating notes variously described as the knock of the KGB, the bombs of warfare or the arrival tragic fate. The quartet is obsessively cyclic and the preoccupation is Shostakovich himself.
It is rarely noted that the quartet has another cyclic theme: the sinister five-note theme dominating the second movement is present in a quieter form throughout significant portions of the first and last movements. The theme is introduced at the beginning of the quartet and it is there at the end, the final dying notes of the entire quartet. As a background figure, it plays the role of a funeral march. As foreground in the second movement, it becomes the shrill subject of a relentless fugato escalating into an all-consuming firestorm of counterpoint. In the elegiac final fugue, this same theme temporarily softens into a compassionate countersubject, entwined with the familiar DSCH motive until it turns dark once more and fades into silence.
Cyclic in a larger sense, the quartet looks back through Shostakovich’s lifetime and quotes several of his other compositions: the 1st and 5th symphonies, the Second Piano Trio, the Cello Concerto, and his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsinsk District (among other references). Whether you recognize the quotes or not, you can easily notice them, obvious swatches of notable melody like memories floating within a stream of consciousness. As if to reflect the fragmented, yet ultimately unbroken continuity of a life, the movements run together without pause, even overlapping, tightly integrated with a series of thematic cross-connections dominated by a single genetic code. The end returns to the beginning, resuming the somber elegy so violently interrupted by disturbing visions of a life flashing before one’s eyes. As he composed the quartet, Shostakovich claimed to have shed an unquantifiable number of tears.
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 is not pretty, nor beautiful in a traditional sense. It is riveting, immensely powerful, profoundly moving, and, in parts, achingly lyrical. In a domain that is idiosyncratically and brilliantly Shostakovich’s own, the music explores the complex aesthetics of the darkest aspects of human experience: sorrow, terror, violence, death, shock, grief and a sardonic gallows humor. Regardless of its program, the music is a distillation of visceral emotion with astonishing impact. With or without knowledge of its intricate topical and musical references, the quartet delivers an unforgettable, epic experience. It would seem that Shostakovich wrote a soundtrack after all.