Freedom from tyranny, salvation, renewed hope – those were the keywords when I started to think about Dmitry Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 68. Shostakovich completed it in just 19 days in September 1944. It was the first string quartet he wrote after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Three years later the German armies were retreating everywhere while the Red Army had reached the Baltic states and a victory over the Nazi regime appeared inevitable. The composer stayed at the time in a government retreat for artists, some 300 km north-east from Moscow.
Composing at lightning speed
“The process of music composition gives me no little concern and unrest”, Shostakovich remarked in autumn 1944. “What bothers me is the lightning speed with which I compose. Without doubt, it isn’t good. One shouldn’t compose as quickly as I do.” He estimated that, once he had the general structure of a work locked in his mind, he would write some 20 to 30 pages of score a day, interrupting only for lunch. String Quartet No. 2 has the composer’s typical signature: Force and unrest married to solemn and joyful passages. However he added something new: elements stemming from Eastern European Jewish culture.
Shostakovich dedicated this piece to his fellow composer Vissarion Shebalin in order to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their acquaintance. Shebalin was considered one of the foremost composers of the Soviet Union at the time and had recently won the Stalin Prize for his fifth’s quartet called “Salvonic”. Shebalin attended several rehearsals of the piece where Shostakovich would point out interpretive details to the Beethoven Quartet that was to perform the premiere. I recommend the recording by the Emerson String Quartet, featuring in a masterful collection of all quartets written by Shostakovich.
A Jewish folk theme and its variations
The first movement is full of energy, densely written, it starts with a first triumphant theme, followed by a second, nervous subject. The second movement has been labeled by Shostakovich as “recitative and romance”: very cantabile, almost like a romantic aria from an opera, a little plaintive, melancholic – beautiful! The third movement, called “Valse” by the composer, takes up the second theme of the introduction and casts it in a ghostly, mysterious shape. The final movement starts with a slow folk theme of Jewish inspiration, a wonderful, pensive dialogue between the violin and the cello first, repeated by the viola and a third time by the second violin. The theme undergoes several variations, the movement ends on a solemn and optimist note.
Freedom of tyranny and renewed hope, the ideas that the first and last movement triggered in my mind, those are my wishes for you at the beginning of this year. Happy New Year!
© Charles Thibo