This week’s music marks the beginning of a new series on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. We will be kicking off the series with the fourth movement of his String Quartet No. 1, performed by the Jerusalem Quartet (the fourth movement starts at the 10:41 mark in the video).
Before getting to the fourth movement, here’s a bit of background on Shostakovich as a chamber music composer:
- He did not begin writing chamber music until age 32, much later than most of his Russian colleagues. When he started composing the first string quartet, Shostakovich wrote, “I began to write it without special ideas and feelings. I wrote the first page as a sort of original exercise in the quartet form, but then work on the quartet captivated me and I finished it rather quickly.”
- Unlike his symphonies, Shostakovich intended his early string quartets to be light-hearted. In his own words: “Don’t expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical. I would call it ‘spring-like.'” In keeping with the view in Moscow musical circles at the time, Shostakovich did not view chamber music as a series musical pursuit. Ironically, his string quartets have become some of the best-loved compositions of the twentieth century.
- The contentment, ease, and lightness you will hear in this string quartet are a sharp contrast to the turmoil in Shostakovich’s life at the time he wrote it. His Fourth Symphony had received a disastrous premiere in Moscow, and Shostakovich had given up hope that he would ever write a great symphony.
The fourth movement (starting at 10:41 in the video) returns to the home key of C Major. The end of the movement hangs the listener over a ledge of C Minor before resolving to the tonic. I chose this movement for the first installment in our series because it is a preview of some Shostakovich tendencies that you will become familiar with as we listen to his other string quartets. For instance, the fourth movement showcases the punchy metric effects Shostakovich would later perfect in his eighth string quartet. It also features shifting meters (later perfected by the American composer Aaron Copland) and classic “Shostakovich-style” harmonies that seem to be bitter, tart, and sweet at the same time.