Our music this week is an old favorite of ours here at This Week’s Music: String Quartet No. 8 by Dimitri Shostakovich, performed by the Borodin Quartet, one of the greatest ensembles in history.
The inscription on the front of Shostakovich’s manuscript for this quartet reads: “In memory of victims of war.” He wrote it while visiting Dresden, a city that had been destroyed in WWII. More lives were lost in the bombing of Dresden than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Shostakovich was so deeply affected by this experienced that he penned this entire quartet in only three days.
The quartet has a central harmonic motif that you will hear right away at the beginning. It is referred to by the composer as DSCH. Translated from the German tradition of calling B “H” and E-flat “S,” this becomes D-E flat-C-B. This is the same tonal structure Shostakovich uses in several of his other works, including his First and Tenth Symphonies.
The quartet has five movements. One can hear in the first movement the sombre, reflective shock of Shostakovich’s confrontation with death and loss. This gives way to a violent second movement (at 5:18) that depicts the fury and devastation of the Blitzkrieg. The third movement is a spooky, erie dance reflecting Shostakovich’s jarring experience of watching Jewish children dance in the streets of an obliterated Dresden. Shostakovich creates this unsettling atmosphere by constantly juxtaposing a B-natural (in the cello) against a B-flat (in the viola). The fourth movement, which begins at 12:31, expands into a powerful elegy laced with hope. Listen for the harmonic reprieve at 13:09 – this is one of those few moments of hope. After being repeatedly struck with these abrupt sets of foreboding chords, Shostakovich inserts a major chord that lifts the listener out of the pain of war and into the hope of the future. My personal favorite part of the quartet is the elegy, which starts at 15:12. I am hard pressed to think of a more powerful moment in all of music.