Satire is the only weapon available to the critical mind facing an overwhelming oppressor. Can you cast satire in music? Dmitry Shostakovich can. A few months back, I enjoyed the performance of his String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 by the Borodin String Quartet. If I had to characterize the concert in one word, I would say it was brilliant. Brilliant on two accounts. The Borodin String Quartet’s interpretation of Op. 122 was flawless. And the piece itself is one of Shostakovich’s ultimate strokes of genius.
Shostakovich’s acid humor
An acid humor pervades the piece, at the same time Shostakovich testifies that he still cherishes humanity as such. The composer directs his sarcasm against the oppressing powers that would be: the Soviet state. By the time he wrote it – January 1965 to January 1966 – his national and international fame had grown to a degree where he could wage a low intensity opposition to his detractors. The gradual liberalization under Nikita Khrushchev was rolled back when Khrushchev was ousted and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev in October 1964. Shostakovich’s declining health made a more openly defiant stance hardly possible.
The quartet is written in seven movements and for the first six movements, the score emphasizes that they must be played “attacca”, aggressively. The Borodin String Quartet did heed Shostakovich’s command and made me feel the intensity of the piece throughout my body. At times, it made me shiver or feel frightened, then again it gave me some comfort.
Fragmentation as a composing rule
The composer wrote a very dense piece with many surprise effects that the producer Stephen Harris described in these words: The quartet is “a strange, cryptic but closely knit suite of seven connected miniatures. It stands apart from […] the previous quartets by initially giving a feeling of fragmentation […] Harmonics are incomplete, fugues are blocked, and ‘wrong’ notes are played.”
Harris recalls the “string quartets 11 to 14 form the subset ‘The Quartet of Quartets’: All [four] are dedicated to members of the Beethoven String Quartet. [No. 11] is dedicated to the memory of Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, a close friend of Shostakovich and co-founder of the quartet who had died at the age of 65 in Mamontovka, near Moscow, on 16 August 1965.”
I hope you will enjoy this stunning piece of chamber music. I recommend the recording by the Emerson String Quartet, which has recorded all of Shostakovich’s quartets. I will certainly come back to some of them. It is money well spent.
© Charles Thibo