Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 117

April 1, 2017

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 117, (1964)

Dmitri ShostakovichSince the latter part of the 20th century following his death in 1975, the string quartet cycle of Dmitri Shostakovich has come to be regarded as extraordinarily significant. While his fifteen symphonies command attention and demonstrate his creative and prodigious career, they were large spectacles staged for grand public expression subject to broad scrutiny by a totalitarian regime, subject, as well, to the changing complex public image Shostakovich chose, or was forced, to display. The string quartets are different. They are private, personal, intimate and true. They embody music Shostakovich wrote for colleagues, friends, family and himself. And it is particularly this dichotomous context that makes the fifteen string quartets so compelling. Within the music, one finds startling and original music of profound, visceral affect, ample creative genius, but also something of the actual life of Shostakovich: a personal diary of poignant reactions, reflections and dark visions. As the (incomplete) cycle spans some thirty-six years of his life, from the age of thirty-two to less than a year before his death, one can follow the quartets and thereby follow Shostakovich, an immensely creative and sensitive Soviet citizen weathering the myriad personal and global devastations of the 20th century. Across the cycle, the music changes, starting with a fresh exuberance, growing brilliant and fierce, apocalyptic, sardonic, agonized and cryptic, then sparse, alienated and ghostly. Finally, well before he could complete his proposed cycle of twenty-four quartets, one in each key, Shostakovich died and the music abruptly stops, the silence itself a lasting presence.

The String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat, Op. 117 comes just a bit after the middle of the cycle marked by his most celebrated quartet, the String Quartet No. 8 of 1960. It may have been a difficult act to follow. Shostakovich started to compose his next quartet in 1961, a work he once confided was based on "themes from childhood", but reached an impasse and, in what he described as a rare act of self-criticism, burned it in the stove. Nearly three years would pass before he tried again and in about three weeks during May of 1964, Shostakovich completed his ninth quartet.

The quartet seems especially connected to the previous two, what some have called the "personal" quartets. No. 7 was dedicated to his first wife Nina (who died in 1954), No. 8, confidentially, to himself (in what has been called a suicide note), and No. 9 to his third wife Irina (whom he married in 1962). These three sequential quartets also share a common design feature: within each quartet, the movements are played together without a break, attacca, in a seamless narrative of continuous sound. And yet, No. 9 is also considered to foreshadow his late, final quartets. Despite a continuous flow of nonstop movements, Shostakovich begins a sort of disintegration of quartet texture into something more sparse and disruptive: individual parts drop out, solo cadenzas protrude in strong relief, huge pizzicato chords nearly defy the genre and momentum is stalled with new, gaping silences. In this respect, No. 9 represents a transition while standing on its own as a singular quartet of great originality. Indeed, compared with the intensity of No. 8 and the eventual bleakness of the late quartets, No. 9 is often considered exuberant, positive and outward looking.

The quartet comprises five movements, played without pause, in a general fast-slow-fast-slow-fast layout. While the first movement glides with moderate motion, the third movement is an Allegretto lively march and the finale is a frantic, heavily accented Allegro, an overarching acceleration from beginning to end. The artistic interconnectivity and coherence goes deeper. In its final measures, each movement foreshadows the main theme of the next disguised in a kind of sleight-of-hand suggestion. On closer inspection, key motifs and themes are transformations of others in a small but flexible vocabulary. The finale is over twice as long as any of the previous four movements, a conspicuous tour-de-force gathering themes from the previous movements in a kaleidoscopic denouement culminating in a central fugue of bristling simultaneity. The quartet ends with all four players joining in a signature, unison motif initially introduced way back in the very first movement. The more one listens (or studies the score), the more one feels this is a single, intricate entity where truths, first whispered, become towering realizations by the end.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.