An Emotional Struggle in a Desolated Country

Desolation. Charles Thibo

The quartet starts with an element of pain, a nervous anxiety. But Dmitry Shostakovich quickly introduces a balancing element, a comforting melody, trying to cover the repetitive pattern in a struggle for acoustic supremacy – in vain. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major (Op. 92) is one more example of the composer’s amazing talent to express emotions with maximal clarity in a few, essential bars.

The piece is written in four movements and introduces two elements that would become central to later quartets: the joining of all the movements to create a work without a pause, and a growing reference to personal rather than public matters. The fifth quartet grows out of a theme built from five notes: C, D, E flat, B and C sharp, which contains the four pitch-classes of the composer’s musical monogram: DSCH (E flat being S and B being H in German). This theme appears in a number of his other string quartets.

As a contrast to the first movement, the second is very calm and peaceful, at some point it takes on an eery connotation, a funeral theme or a silent lamentation come to my mind. The third and four movements extend this mood and add a more dynamic element: a conversation, growing more and more animated, but Shostakovich introduces a certain distance, detachedness, a conversation of ghosts? The overall mood is one of desolation and resignation.

Shostakovich wrote the string quartet in autumn 1952, it was performed for the first time in Leningrad in November 1953 by the Beethoven Quartet, to whom it is dedicated, shortly after Stalin’s death. Is the composition related to the course of historical events? In my opinion, the Stalinist regime, built upon terror, reward and the unpredictability of both, had so strongly deformed society that there was no escape for anyone, and certainly not for a sensitive man like Shostakovich. How could he not reflect his dark mood, his experience of a closed society, paralyzed by fear and mutual suspicion?

After completing the quartet, Shostakovich admitted that he regarded it highly unlike his fourth which he dismissed as being just entertaining. Nevertheless he felt that because “musical circles” – the Union of Soviet Composers that had accused im not so long ago of “formalism” – would react to it negatively, it could not be published. As long as Stalin was alive, it was too early not only for hope, for a little more freedom of expression, but also for an honest testimony of the leaden and opaque present.

String quartet No. 5 has been recorded by the Emerson String Quartet.

© Charles Thibo

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