Composing under Big Brother’s eyes

Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets. © Charles Thibo
Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets. © Charles Thibo

“The quartet is one of the most difficult musical genres.” The Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich wrote this in 1938, when he had started to compose his first string quartet. “I began to write it without special ideas and feelings.” It didn’t take him long to complete it and when he was done, he wrote to Ivan Sollertinsky, a music critic and a close friend to Shostakovich: “I re-grouped in mid-stream. The first movement became the last, the last the first. […] It didn’t turn out particularly well. But you know, it’s hard to compose well.” What a modest young man we have here.

New sounds, new chords

Shostakovitch was 32 years old, he had written five symphonies, a ballet, incidental music, numerous piano pieces, two operas and a cello sonata up to then. If he had to struggle with the first of the 15 string quartets he would eventually write, it is not bad. Actually, I think it is excellent. The first movement starts on a melody that could well have been written by Pyotr Tchaikovsky if it weren’t for the very discreet deviations from the laws of harmony that Shostakovich has hidden in the score. Just like Arnold Schönberg, he is experimenting with new sounds, new chords, new constructions. Open to new ideas, without being daring or revolutionary. Before its premiere, he cautioned: “Don’t expect to find special depth in this […] The mood is joyful, merry, lyrical.” And no special depth does not mean no depth at all.

A quantum leap since Beethoven

There is a part towards the end of the second movement played pizzicato*, that I like particularly well, and I think it has a certain depth. It evokes a sweet melancholy, it takes me back to the happy times of my childhood – just like the composer anticipated. The third, rather short, movement is quick-stepped and announces that chamber music has made a quantum leap since Ludwig van Beethoven. But quickly it reverts to a pleasant melody linking up with the fourth movement, a little more avant-garde.

Shostakovitch had fallen from grace a few years before he started the composition of his String Quartet No. 1 in C major, Op. 49. His opera “Lady Mabeth of the Mtsensk District” and his ballet “The Limpid Stream” had been denounced by the Communist media as coarse and untruthful. Unsurprisingly,  Shostakovitch was worried about the audience’s and critics’ reaction to the new piece. But everybody was apparently charmed by ” the fresh, childlike simplicity of the unpretentious work”, as his biographer Laurel E. Fay puts it. Shostakovich’s string quartets have been recorded by the excellent Emerson String Quartet for the label Deutsche Grammophon.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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One thought on “Composing under Big Brother’s eyes”

  1. I haven’t gotten very familiar with the later quartets, unfortunately, but I really like the first two. I’ll be writing about them this summer! Good article!

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