This week’s music continues our series on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich with the first movement of his string quartet No. 5, performed by the Jerusalem Quartet. The composition was written during the dark last days of Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union and premiered by the Beethoven Quartet in November 1953.
To call the fifth string quartet groundbreaking would be an understatement. By this point in his career, Shostakovich had become quite comfortable with the string quartet form and was beginning to bend it to his stylistic will. For instance, he discarded the conventional separation of the piece into movements and joined all three movements together in one continuous piece. He also became more comfortable, given the approach of Stalin’s death, with drawing melodic material from his fellow Russians. An example of this can be found in the first movement, which begins with a tight, careful exposition that grows into a startling eruption that carries a “fff” dynamic marking. It appears again at the end of the movement, then again in the middle of the third movement. As it turns out, this melody came from a 1949 trio for clarinet, violin, and piano written by one of Shostakovich’s most famous composition pupils, Galina Ustvolskaya.
It is a rule of thumb that the influence of Shostakovich’s idol, J.S. Bach, can almost always be identified in his music. And the fifth string quartet is no exception. The first four notes played on the viola, for instance, are a permutation of the D-E flat-C-B natural motif that occurs in Shostakovich’s tenth symphony and was made famous in his eighth string quartet (which we will hear next week!). This is almost certainly an imitation of Bach, who often signed his initials B-A-C-H (B natural) in his music.