Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 3, Op. 73

January 7, 2007

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1906-1975

String Quartet No. 3, F major, Op. 73, 1946

Just after World War II, Shostakovich, then forty, turned once again from his public orchestral music to his private chamber music, composing his String Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73. While he had already written nine symphonies, Shostakovich was just settling into his emerging series of string quartets that would eventually comprise fifteen quartets written throughout his mature life, including some of his very last compositions. Many feel that the String Quartet No. 3 is among is his best quartets; it was a favorite of the composer himself. It shows Shostakovich in his full powers as a chamber music composer, skillfully deploying the string quartet to express his utterly distinctive musical personality. From a technical standpoint, the quartet, like many of his later quartets, features an astonishing range of textures, sonic effects and brilliant part writing in the service of music with startling emotional and psychological impact. Successful as abstract musical expression on the one hand, it is nearly impossible to miss the topical and programmatic nature of the quartet, another aspect common to most of Shostakovich's chamber music. The unspeakable hardships of life in the Soviet Union up through the end of WWII took their toll on Shostakovich: nervous, bitter and depressed, he found his most profound outlet in the safe privacy and intimate expressive capability of chamber music. String Quartet No. 3 is a particularly powerful example.

Shostakovich originally gave titles to each of the five movements, but retracted them for unknown reasons immediately after the premier by the Beethoven String Quartet in 1946. The titles characterize the quartet as a reflection on the war and vividly summarize the essential nature of the music. Titled "Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm", the first movement is initially light and easy, but sarcastically so. With two distinct themes and a nearly textbook sonata form, the music moves from an overzealous, fidgety merriment into a disturbed foreshadow with a chaotic fugue scrambling the initial themes into disarming complexity and conflict. The movement ends with a wild acceleration that is more panic than mirth, but the final cadence is a perfect smirk of complacency, its irony now fully apparent.

The second movement, "Rumblings of unrest and anticipation", begins to steer the quartet into much darker waters. An edgy, off-kilter waltz draws each instrument into the fray of angular melody, restless tonality, menacing rhythms, and shrill intervals. Suddenly, without changing its time signature, the music shifts from a triple meter waltz into a duple meter march, a clear suggestion that the "rumblings" are those of war. The march has the same hollow brightness of the first movement's mindless mirth. Much of the remainder of the quartet features a prominent ambiguity between the two basic kinds of meter, often marked by explicit time signature changes from measure to measure. The constant juxtaposition of dance and march as fundamental but readily interchangeable motions could well be Shostakovich's key reflection on human nature in this quartet.

The third movement is one side of Shostakovich at his best. With an allegro tempo, fortissimo dynamics, a propulsive rhythm and the full weight of the ensemble combined in huge double, triple and quadruple stopped chords, the music perfectly matches its original title, "The forces of war unleashed". This is signature Shostakovich: as in so many of his powerful works, here is the one movement that catches on fire. Still, in the midst of this severe drama, Shostakovich intersperses caricature and parody in the form of skittering dances, pompous, overblown marches and a sudden, perfectly resolved final cadence. The forth movement Adagio is the other side of Shostakovich at his best: desolate, haunting and elegiac, it is a deep and earnest lament he titled "Homage to the dead". The quartet's center of gravity, it begins with a stark, heavy theme intoned by all four instruments in unison. The theme recurs in a series of anguished solos within a diversity of shifting ensemble configurations that ultimately sink into a funeral dirge in the lowest registers, a forlorn duet for viola and cello.

The finale originally bore the title "The eternal question: Why? and for what?" With a moderate tempo and a 6/8 time signature, the music is episodic and ambiguous, mixing duple and triple meters, unsettling marches and ghostly dances, perhaps suggesting that humanity will always waver between both gestures, equally oblivious to its tendencies towards complacency and destruction. The tension escalates into one final climax that erupts with a recall of the fourth movement dirge, an outpouring of grief and yet another hybrid of windup march and languid dance. The quartet dies away with an eerie glow: a long, unison pedal-point hovers while a lonely violin sings a final, wan lament that evaporates into an ethereal, disembodied harmonic. The eternal question remains, unanswered.

More Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 in c minor, Op. 110 String quartet No. 7 in f-sharp minor, Op. 108 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.