This week’s music is the most famous of Shostakovich’s string quartets, the eighth, performed by the legendary Emerson Quartet.
Shostakovich was in East Germany to write the score for a film about the bombing of Dresden when the inspiration for the eighth string quartet arrived. Three days later, the composition was completed. Shostakovich dedicated it to the “memory of victims of war.”
The eighth string quartet is, in my opinion, the most emotionally powerful of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Indeed, it is one of the most emotionally powerful works of art to come out of the twentieth century. It is a work of shattering strength and tremendous depth, the kind of work that can leave a listener stunned in their chair, the kind of work that can raise memories long buried and remind us of the fragility and rapidity of life. It is a work that plumbs the depths of human psychology. Like Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, it is a consumate artistic masterpiece.
All five movements of the quartet feature quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier compositions. For instance, first symphony and first cello concerto are reference in the first movement, and the reference to his own initials we saw last week in his fourth string quartet is scattered throughout the second, third, and fifth movements. Shostakovich is reported to have said about the quartet that it was “written in memory of its composer,” which suggests the references to his name were a sort of preemptive requiem.
What should you listen for? If I answered that question completely, this post would turn into a PhD thesis. But here are a few things to keep an ear out for:
- Shostakovich’s name. It’s everywhere. As we saw last week, Shostakovich signed his name D-E flat-C-B natural in his tenth symphony, his fourth string quartet, and now his eighth string quartet (a permutation of his initials, DSCH, with the B natural substituting the H in German musical nomenclature). Shostakovich places this little signature all over the place, in every key and instrumentation imaginable.
- The second movement. There’s simply nothing like it. This is Russian music at its fire-breathing, hair-raising best.
- The symbolism in the fourth movement. The start of the fourth movement features a low drone in the first violin, interrupted by three loud strikes that get repeated several times until they reach a harmonic resolution. These strikes represent the gunfire of warfare, and the droning sound of the first violin represents the sound of distant aircraft. Once the strikes resolve, the droning becomes the first four notes of the dies irae portion of the Catholic requiem mass (which is ironically the same notes as Shostakovich’s signature, DSCH, just in a different order). To call this kind of musical symbolism powerful would be a gross understatement.
- The fifth movement’s tribute to Bach. As we saw last week, Shostakovich could not resist paying homage to his hero, J.S. Bach, in almost everything he wrote. And the fifth movement is structured in a classic Bach-style fugue. It’s easy to miss because of the achingly sad, elegiac beauty of the fifth movement, but the fugue is there, hiding just under the surface.