Shostakovich, the master of irony. Shostakovich, the pawn. Shostakovich, the genius. Shostakovich, the believer. Shostakovich, the patriot. A man with multiple facets. A man who continues to fascinate me. During the summer of 1964 he wrote his String Quartet No. 10 in A flat major, Op. 118. It reflects many of Shostakovich’s facets. His tenderness, his love for beautiful melodies, his penchant for the grotesque, the tension that dominated his life and permeates every piece he wrote. The question of life and death of an artist in the Soviet Union that in some way or other haunted him for as long as he lived.
The quartet is written in four movements and I very much like the third movement, the adagio, and the neat transition to the finale. Shostakovich dedicated the piece to Mieczyslaw Vainberg, “with whom he was engaged in a playful competition”, as the Shostakovich biographer Laurel E. Fay writes. Apparently Shostakovich intended to overtake Vainberg’s record of nine quartets.
Vassily Shirinsky, first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet who performed the premier of the piece, wrote that it “is one of Shostakovich’s most joyous and optimistic works”. And indeed, the introduction sets an overall friendly atmosphere with just a hint of scepticism. Those were complicated times after all.
In 1962 the Cuban missile crisis had brought the world close to a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. In 1963, the Soviet Union joined the US and Great Britain in signing a treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests, the American-Soviet hotline was set up to prevent another missile crisis. In 1964, when the quartet was written, Nikita Khrushchev was replaced at the head of the Communist Party by Leonid Brezhnev, less inclined to continue Khrushchev’s liberal policies. Hot, cold, hot – a difficult constellation.
Some of the tension that Shostakovich may have felt at the time becomes audible in the second movement, while the exceptional adagio consists of a passacaglia – eight variations and a coda on a repeated theme – based on the broad theme initiated by the cello in the first bars, a technique derived from Baroque composing principles. The finale starts on a theme derived from the beginning of the first movement, light, playful for the violin, solemn for the cello, then, unexpectedly, the passacaglia shows up again, and then one last surprise occurs, the themes of the first movement, before the music terminates in a whisper.
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10 is available on a recording by the Emerson String Quartet.
© Charles Thibo